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Miami Cubans Praise US Efforts for Democracy in Cuba

Many people in Miami's Cuban community are praising Washington's continued efforts to promote democracy in Cuba. This comes after President Bush's Monday approval of a new, multi-million-dollar program to support freedom and democracy in Cuba, after decades of Communist rule.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the efforts Monday, with the release of the second report of the bipartisan Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.

The new American commitment includes a two-year, $80 million program to end what Secretary Rice called the information blockade in Cuba, and also to support efforts to one day transition to democracy on the island.

The announcement comes about a month before Cuban President Fidel Castro turns 80. The Communist dictator came to power in 1959. His brother, Raul, is his chosen successor.

Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcón was quoted in Cuban state-run media last week as saying the draft of the commission's report reinforced what he called an American plan to annex the island.

In Miami, some in the city's large Cuban community welcomed the announcement in Washington.

Alfredo Mesa, the executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, says the efforts show there is a clear commitment to bring a transition to democracy in Cuba. But he says the efforts for change cannot just come from outside the island.

"The decisions for a transition to democracy in Cuba have to take place in Cuba by Cubans," said Mesa.

He also says those who want political change in Cuba must act with those who would be part of the transition.

"Opposition leaders and dissident leaders and even people who work in the government today that can be in a position tomorrow to bring a peaceful democratic transition in Cuba are the ones who need to be guiding us in how we can help them," added Mesa.

Maria Vazquez owns a shop in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. She praised the Bush administration's effort for political change in Cuba. She says Cuban freedom is the goal.

"We want a free Cuba," she said. "We want a free Cuba with elections, where both the people inside the island and ourselves who have been refugees for almost 47 years be able to vote in a democratic way."

At the InterAmerican Campus of Miami Dade College, one student says, although there are some positive aspects to life on the island, they are far outweighed by the negative.

"There are advantages and disadvantages, they have free education for everybody and health care, but they also have problems with the food and how they get basic stuff for everybody," said the student.

The United States imposed an economic embargo against Cuba more than four decades ago. The student says she believes American pressure on the island is influencing the people of Cuba - but not the government.