MIAMI -- President Bush today marked the 89th anniversary of Cuba's independence with an offer to President Fidel Castro of improved relations with the United States if free elections are held on the island.
"If Cuba holds fully free and fair elections under international supervision, respects human rights and stops subverting its neighbors, we can expect relations between our two countries to improve significantly," Bush said in a taped radio message.
Bush was scheduled to deliver the remarks during a meeting today with Cuban exiles at the Oval Office to mark Cuba's independence from Spain.
Bush's call for elections in Cuba in exchange for improved relations with the United States marks a shift in U.S. attitude, albeit not policy. U.S. policy toward Cuba has been marked by antagonism aimed at keeping the island isolated diplomatically and economically until Castro leaves power.
It is unlikely that Castro will respond positively to Bush's offer. Last week, a Cuban government official in Washington rejected such an offer after reports circulated in Miami that the Bush administration was preparing a call for elections in Cuba.
"We should remind these gentlemen of the administration that the type of regime they are describing is the one that caused the Cuban revolution, and that only the Cuban people can decide how to organize their society," said Ariel Ricardo, a Cuban Interests Section spokesman.
Besides calling for elections, Bush also will urge Castro to free political prisoners, improve human rights conditions and stop supporting anti-government rebel groups in other countries.
"Today, we again reiterate unwavering commitment for a free and democratic Cuba. Nothing shall turn us away from this objective," Bush said in his message.
"I challenge Mr. Castro to follow the examples of countries like Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Chile in their achievement of new democracies," he said.
". . . I challenge Mr. Castro to let Cuba live in peace with its neighbors."
"Ninety-nine percent of the people of this hemisphere live either in a democracy or a country that is on the road to democracy. One percent live under the hemisphere's last dictator, Fidel Castro.
"Freedom and democracy, Mr. Castro, not sometime, not someday, but now."