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US Launches $80 Million Pro-Democracy Effort for Cuba


President Bush Monday approved an $80 million program, aimed at fostering democratic change in Cuba. The U.S. administration is also pledging extensive support for any Cuban government succeeding Fidel Castro's communist regime that promises free elections and an end to repression.

The president's approval of the policy recommendations comes little more than a month before the 80th birthday of the Cuban dictator. And the action is clearly aimed at encouraging those in Cuba, who want to see democratic rule on the island once the Castro era has ended.

Mr. Bush accepted the recommendations of the bipartisan Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba that was set up three years ago to foster democratic change, and try to head off any scheme that would perpetuate communist control, once Mr. Castro leaves the scene.

The commission, in its second report to the White House since 2004, called for $80 million in spending over the next two years to provide uncensored information to Cuba through broadcasting and the Internet, and by strengthening democratic factions in the Caribbean country.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who co-chairs the commission along with Cuban-born Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, told reporters at the State Department, the report reflects U.S. resolve to stand with Cuban opposition leaders, and the many more Cubans holding similar views, who, she said, have been forced into fearful silence.

"Under a new, two-year, $80 million program, we are stepping up our efforts along multiple fronts," she said. "We are increasing our determination to break the regime's information blockade. And we are offering support for the efforts by Cubans to prepare for the day when they will recover their sovereignty, and can select a government of their choosing through free and fair multi-party elections."

The spending package would support the existing U.S.-funded Television and Radio Marti, and third-country broadcasting to Cuba, as well as efforts to circumvent what officials here say is the Castro government's blockade of Internet information to the island.

About one-third of the money would go to support independent civil society, though how funds would be channeled to beleaguered democracy groups there was not specified.

The commission, which includes prominent Cuban-Americans, also called for tougher enforcement of existing sanctions against the Castro government.

Under what the panel termed a Compact with the People of Cuba, it pledged wide-ranging emergency U.S. support for a post-Castro Cuban transitional government, though Commerce Secretary Gutierrez said it would have to request such aid, and make clear its democratic intentions.

"We will do all this and more, provided we are asked by a Cuban transition government that is committed to dismantling all instruments of state repression and implementing internationally-respected human rights and fundamental freedom, including organizing free and fair elections for a democratically-elected new Cuban government, within a period of no more than 18 months," he said.

Secretary Gutierrez said the United States would also encourage support for a transitional government from other countries, multi-national organizations and the private sector, while pledging to discourage third parties from intervening to obstruct the will of the Cuban people.

He did not elaborate. But the 93-page commission report said the communist government in Havana has every intention of continuing its hold on power, through a succession plan that would make Mr. Castro's brother, Raul, the next leader.

It said the Castro regime is actively seeking to control the policy environment on transition, in concert with foreign opponents of peaceful democratic change - led, it said, by the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela.

The report said Cuba's deepening relationship with Venezuela parallels its earlier partnership with the former Soviet Union.

It said the Cuba-Venezuela axis is advancing a retrograde, anti-American agenda for the hemisphere, but that there are signs that the Havana-Caracas relationship is, in its words, beginning to grate on Cuban nationalist sensibilities.

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