WASHINGTON, Oct 25 (Reuters) President George W Bush labeled the Castro government a ''disgraced and dying order'' and urged Cubans to push for democratic change.
Bush also defended the decades-old policy of tight US economic sanctions on Havana in his first formal speech on Cuba since an ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his brother Raul in July of last year.
He rejected any easing of the sanctions without a full transition to democracy and said doing so would only bolster the communist government's grip on power.
Castro, 81, is suffering from an undisclosed intestinal illness and has not been seen in public in 15 months. Many analysts believe a stable transfer of power to Raul Castro has already taken place and some predict slow, modest changes could occur under his rule.
But Bush, reinforcing the administration's hard-line policy toward Havana, said the handover to Raul Castro amounted to merely ''exchanging one dictator for another.'' ''America will have no part in giving oxygen to a criminal regime victimizing its own people,'' Bush said in a speech at the State Department yesterday, where he appeared with family members of Cuban political prisoners. ''We will not support the old way with new faces, the old system held together by new chains.'' Bush said Cubans were ''restive'' for change. Addressing them, he said, ''You have the power to shape your own destiny.'' He also appealed to the Cuban military and security forces not to stand in the way of a push for political change, telling them they had a choice to make. ''Will you defend a disgraced and dying order by using force against your own people, or will you embrace your people's desire for change?'' he said.
Cuba accused Bush of inciting a violent uprising by giving more importance to liberty than stability, and said the US president had no moral authority after the bloodshed in Iraq.
''You will never force us to our knees,'' Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said in response to Bush's speech, which he called ''gross meddling'' in Cuba's internal affairs.
Bush's speech reflected frustration with his plan for ''regime change'' in Cuba as his presidential term nears its end, Perez Roque told a news conference in Havana. ''You are not a liberator, Mr Bush You are a brutal repressor,'' he said.
BUSH SEEKS INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT Bush called on other nations to support democratic change in Cuba and asked aides to work on an international ''freedom fund'' that would help the country once a transition occurs.
Although he praised the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland as helpful to the democracy movement in Cuba, Bush may have difficulty generating much global support for his approach toward Cuba.
Every year since 1992, the UN General Assembly has told the United States to lift the embargo against Cuba. Last year's resolution was approved by a record 183-4, with one abstention.
The next such vote is slated to take place next Tuesday.
At home, Bush's speech was criticized by some Democrats.
Presidential contender Sen Barack Obama of Illinois said the cause of democracy in Cuba would not be helped by threats.
Instead, Bush should have lifted restrictions he placed in 2004 on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, Obama said in a statement, in which he called them ''the most effective messengers of freedom and democratic change.'' Another presidential candidate, Connecticut Sen Chris Dodd, said Bush had a ''fixation'' with the Castro brothers.
''Nearly fifty years of a failed Cuba policy must end,'' said Dodd, who said the travel ban and other sanctions are counterproductive to the aim of spurring democracy.
It was unclear how many Cubans heard Bush's message.
US-funded Radio Marti, which has broadcast anti-Castro news for two decades, is jammed by Cuba and can only be heard outside Havana. TV Marti is hardly seen at all.