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Bush eyes cuba regime change { October 10 2003 }

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October 10, 2003
Bush Initiative on Cuba Looks Beyond Castro Era

WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 President Bush announced several steps today that he said were meant to speed the coming of "a new, free, democratic Cuba" after 44 years of the rule of Fidel Castro.

Mr. Bush said the United States would increase the number of Cuban immigrants who are allowed in to the United States each year and would tighten restrictions on Americans' travel to the island. And he announced the creation of a commission to plan for change.

The commission, to be headed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Mel Martinez, the Cuban-born secretary of Housing and Urgan Development, will draw upon government experts, Mr. Bush said, "to plan for Cuba's transition from Stalinist rule to a free and open society, to identify ways to hasten the arrival of that day."

The president's Rose Garden announcement, on the 135th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban revolt against colonial rule, was partly symbolic, and it surely had as much to do with Florida as it did with Cuba.

Miami has a large and influential Cuban community, many members of which long for Castro to be gone. Mr. Bush carried Florida and its 25 electoral votes by a slim margin in 2000, so the president is eager to shore up his support in the state.

Mr. Bush's backing in Miami may have been weakened this past summer, when Washington ordered the return of about a dozen migrants to Cuba after being assured that they would not be executed. The migrants had been intercepted by the Coast Guard at sea, and their return to Cuba was such an emotional issue in South Florida that the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, was publicly critical of the decision.

Many other Republican politicians in Florida were also critical. Thirteen state lawmakers, including 10 Cuban Americans, wrote the president shortly after the episode, warning him that if he did not make "substantial progress" toward fulfilling Cuban-American demands, "we fear the historic and intense support from Cuban-American voters for Republican federal candidates, including yourself, will be jeopardized."

The administration had hinted for weeks that an announcement on Cuba was coming, so today's initiatives were not really surprising. Nor were they heavy on specifics. Mr. Bush did not say, for instance, how many more Cuban immigrants would be welcomed.

"The Castro regime will not change by its own choice," Mr. Bush said. "But Cuba must change."

Mr. Bush said the Department of Homeland Security would increase scrutiny of travelers and shipments to and from Cuba and would focus on people who skirt travel restrictions by going to the island through a third country.

Travel to Cuba is allowed under exceptions for family matters, research and other limited circumstances, but "those exceptions are too often used as a cover for illegal business travel and tourism, or to skirt the restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba," Mr. Bush said, adding that "illegal tourism perpetuates the misery of the Cuban people."

In increasing the number of immigrants admitted from Cuba, Mr. Bush said the administration would step up efforts to inform cubans "of the many routes to safe and legal entry into the United States," so that desperate people do not take to the sea in rickety boats.

Symbolic or not, Mr. Bush's announcement in the Rose Garden drew warm applause from members of Florida's Congressional delegation, especially when the president occasionally spoke in Spanish. And while no one can predict when the Castro era will end, Mr. Castro turned 77 on Aug. 13.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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