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Rice Urges Cubans to Stay Home, Work for Change

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a broadcast message Friday, assured Cubans of U.S. support in what could be the beginning of a political transition on the communist-ruled island. She reiterated U.S. readiness to provide humanitarian aid to back peaceful democratic change there.

The Secretary's message carried on the U.S- funded Cuba broadcasters Radio and TV Marti stressed U.S. solidarity with Cubans, and reflected concern here that unrest might trigger a new outflow of refugees.

Rice said the United States is committed to tangibly supporting a future of freedom for Cuba, and that Cubans should remain at home and work to fulfill their aspirations for a free society:

"All Cubans who desire peaceful democratic change can count on the support of the United States. We encourage the Cuban people to work at home for positive change, and we stand ready to provide you with humanitarian assistance as you begin to chart a new course for your country," she said.

The Secretary, in the message lasting less than two minutes, made no specific mention of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's illness and temporary transfer of power to his brother and defense minister, Raul Castro.

But she said the United States is closely watching events with an unchanging commitment to support a future of freedom for Cuba that will be defined by the Cuban people themselves.

She said the United States is encouraging democratic countries to join together and call for the release of Cuban political prisoners, for the restoration of fundamental freedoms, and a transition that quickly lead to multi-party elections.

U.S. officials have rejected the notion that a handover of power to Raul Castro amounts to meaningful change in the country.

The State Department said Thursday the imposition of Raul Castro, who at 75 is five years younger than his brother, denies the Cuban people their right to freely elect their government.

U.S. pledges of aid for a Cuban transition, repeated frequently in recent days, are aimed in part at reassuring Cubans about the future, and discouraging an outflow of asylum-seekers. In a talk with reporters Friday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said a refugee crisis is a matter of concern.

"That's always been something that we've been very concerned about. We don't want people to risk their lives at sea. It's been a long-standing element of U.S. migration policy with respect to Cuba. And certainly at this time, we just also want to remind people that that is not something we want to see them do now," he said.

In Crawford, Texas with President Bush, White House Spokesman Tony Snow dismissed as absurd any Cuban fears of a U.S. invasion of the island while Fidel Castro is sidelined. He also said discussion of changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba is premature.

Fidel Castro ceded authority to his brother last Monday for the first time in 47 years to recover from surgery to stem intestinal bleeding. Officials in Havana say the elder Castro is recovering satisfactorily but have given no timetable for a return to power.