U.S. President George Bush says he rejects calls to change his Cuba policy, now that Fidel Castro has ceded power to his brother Raul. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports in a speech to business leaders in Washington, Mr. Bush also made a renewed appeal for Congressional passage of pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.
President Bush says the new Cuban leadership is not serious about reforms. He says the transition to Raul Castro has produced only empty gestures.
"Until there is a change of heart and a change of compassion and a change of how the Cuban government treats its people, there is no change at all," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush says he knows critics of his policies want him to ease pressure on the Cuban government. But he leaves no doubt he intends to stand firm, saying Cuba is still ruled by the same group that has oppressed its people for half a century.
"Cuba will not be a land of liberty so long as free expression is punished and free speech can take place only in hushed whispers and silent prayers," Mr. Bush said. "And Cuba will not become a place of prosperity just by easing restrictions on the sale of products the average Cuban cannot afford."
Mr. Bush says he has heard the stories of Cuban dissidents first hand. He says he took part in a videoconference earlier this week with pro-democracy activists in Cuba and was impressed by their bravery
The comments came in a speech to the Council of the Americas, a business group that promotes free trade and democracy in the Western Hemisphere.
The president used the opportunity to not only reaffirm his policy on Cuba, but to call on the U.S. Congress to support pending trade pacts with two hemispheric countries.
Democratic Party leaders in the U.S. Congress have blocked a vote on an agreement with Colombia, and taken no action at all on a pact with Panama.
President Bush says they are making a big mistake, noting these deals lift tariffs on American goods and services, and boost U.S. exports.
"With our economy slowing, it seems like to me that we should be doing everything possible to open new markets," Mr. Bush said.
The president says in the case of Colombia the benefits are not just economic but strategic.
"Approving this agreement is an urgent national security priority. Colombia is one of our strongest allies in the western hemisphere," Mr. Bush said.
The president says he also wants lawmakers to back the joint effort by the United States, Mexico and Central American nations to combat the drug trade. Mr. Bush has asked Congress for $550 million for the so-called Merida Initiative.