Bush to urge Cubans to push for democratic change

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WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) US President George W Bush will urge Cubans today to ''shape their destiny'' by pushing for peaceful democratic change, in his latest effort to boost pressure on ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Bush, in a speech on Cuba at the State Department, will describe the communist-run Cuban government as a dying regime and suggest conditions on the island are ripe for democratic change, according to a US official who previewed Bush's remarks last night.

The official added Bush was not calling for armed rebellion but for a transition he likened to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Castro, 81, has not been seen in public in 15 months. He is suffering from an undisclosed intestinal illness that led him to cede power to his brother Raul in July 2006, the first time he had loosened his grip on power since the 1959 revolution.

In recent remarks, Bush has suggested he thinks Castro's demise is near, telling an audience earlier this month in Miami that ''the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing an end.'' The Bush administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said, ''There's a restive element to the Cuban people.'' ''This will be the real Cuban revolution of them seeking their rights and joining the community of democracies,'' the official said.

Bush ''will say to them that they have the power to change, and, or, to shape their destiny, that they are the ones who will bring about a future where Cuban leaders are chosen by them,'' the official said.

Pressed on whether Bush was encouraging Cubans to attempt a violent overthrow of the government, the official replied, ''No, the president is not calling for armed rebellion.'' SMALL INITIATIVES The White House's announcement last week that Bush planned to deliver a speech on Cuba stirred speculation in both Washington and Havana about a possible big announcement, such as an easing of a ban on travel to the island or another tightening of sanctions.

But such announcements do not appear likely. Instead, in addition to urging Cubans to push for change, Bush will call on other countries to join the United States in trying to encourage democratic change on the island.

He will also announce some small initiatives, such as allowing US-based charities to offer Internet access to Cuban students so they can have access to varied media sources and inviting Cuban youths to participate in a scholarship program.

Bush will also instruct top aides to try to lay the groundwork for an international fund to aid a Cuban transition to democracy. He will urge the US Congress to maintain stiff economic sanctions in place for decades.

Anticipating Bush's speech, Castro in an article published on Tuesday denounced the White House plans to step up pressure for political change, saying they were ''equivalent to a new conquest of Cuba by force.'' A frail-looking Castro wearing pajamas has appeared in two pre-taped television interviews this year. He has not given indications lately he intends to return to power, although many analysts assume that when he dies, Raul Castro will assume leadership on a permanent basis, a situation US officials do not consider enough of a change from Fidel Castro's rule.


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