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US: Cuba Must Allow Basic Human Rights

The Bush administration is bluntly dismissing suggestions by senior Cuban officials that a warming in U.S.-Cuban relations may be near.

Some senior members of Cuba's communist government including Defense Minister Raul Castro have spoken optimistically in recent days about the future of Cuba's relations with the United States.

The Cuban defense chief, brother of President Fidel Castro, said in Havana Saturday that recent Cuba visits by U.S. Congressmen and business figures shows there can be a mutually-beneficial rapprochement between the two sides, based on principles of mutual respect and non-interference.

However, at a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there can be no fundamental improvement in relations until Cuba allows free elections, releases political prisoners, and repeals what he termed "draconian" laws that provide for imprisonment of Cubans who criticize their government. "The Cuban government portrays the fundamental issue as being one between Cuba and the United States. But that's not really it," says Mr. Boucher. "It's not a question of our relationship. It's a question of the Cuban government's continued denial of basic human rights."

Cuban officials have said Havana is cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism, and raised no objections to the transfer of U.S. prisoners from Afghanistan to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Also, Cuba last month began buying U.S. grain, for the first time in decades, under a law passed by Congress at the end of the Clinton administration. It exempts food and medicine from the U.S. trade embargo imposed against the island in 1963.

But President Bush campaigned for office pledging a tougher line against the Castro government, and he underlined that stand with his recent recess appointment of Cuban-American former diplomat Otto Reich - a strong supporter of the trade embargo - as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.