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US Official: Bush Would Veto Bill Easing Travel Restrictions to Cuba - 2003-10-04

A senior State Department official says President Bush will veto any attempt to ease travel restrictions for Americans who want to visit Cuba. The official also says the United States will continue to support Cuban dissidents seeking democratic reform in Cuba.

Roger Noriega, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric Affairs, told Cuban exiles President Bush will not hesitate to veto any bill that crosses his desk, which would ease travel restrictions on U.S. citizens who wish to visit Cuba.

The U.S. Senate will vote this month on a proposal passed by the House of Representatives to ease the travel ban. The measure is expected to pass in the Senate, where several prominent lawmakers have also recently called for scrapping the 43-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

Meeting with reporters after speaking to a gathering of Cuban exiles opposed to any easing of the travel ban and trade embargo, Mr. Noriega said about 200,000 U.S. citizens already travel to Cuba on U.S. government-approved visits, designed to have a positive impact on the island. He says the Bush administration will not approve any measure that would foster mass tourism.

"We are committed to the current policy that has the effect of denying the Castro regime a $1 billion windfall that would come from tourism - the most base and exploitive forms of tourism that we would see in Cuba," said Mr. Noriega. "When we look back, when Cuba is free, we will be glad that the American people were not among those going to Cuba to exploit the island."

Mr. Noriega also says the Bush administration will continue to support dissidents in Cuba. On Friday, Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya delivered to Cuba's legislature more than 14,000 names of Cuban citizens, who say they want a referendum on democratic reforms in Cuba.

Mr. Paya, is a leader of the Varela Project, an initiative sponsored by the Catholic Church to foster dialogue and greater freedom in Cuba. In May of 2002, Mr. Paya delivered a similar box of signatures to Cuba's legislature. Cuba's government responded by approving a constitutional amendment ratifying the country's socialist system as untouchable.

Earlier this year, in a crackdown, Cuban authorities sentenced 75 dissidents, journalists and human rights activists to long prison terms. Speaking in Miami, Roger Noriega said the Bush administration fully supports the latest efforts by Cuban dissidents, such as Oswaldo Paya.

"It is very impressive to me, and I hope that all the American people recognize that, in spite of the blows by the regime - the efforts of the regime to silence the opposition and dissident community in Cuba - that there are people who are carrying out the work to defend and demand and to claim the basic freedoms to which they are entitled," said Mr. Noriega.

At a separate forum held at the same hotel in Miami, where Mr. Noriega spoke, hundreds of other Cuban exiles and their supporters called for an end to both the embargo and travel restrictions. Recent polls show Cuban exiles are increasingly divided on whether to maintain the U.S. trade embargo, with a slim majority supporting maintaining the embargo.