WASHINGTON – Outgoing US President George W. Bush sent a "message of hope" Tuesday to the Cuban people, particularly jailed members of the anti-communist opposition who have been "silenced by tyranny and oppression."
"This message of hope is directed especially to those who have made pleas for freedom only to be silenced by tyranny and oppression," Bush said in a statement which described Cuba as "one of the cruelest dictatorships this hemisphere has witnessed."
Bush, who hands the presidency to his successor Barack Obama on January 20, said his administration had continually challenged Havana to bring political and economic changes and improve human rights on the impoverished island.
His administration, he said, "has made it clear that the United States stands prepared to respond to any request for assistance from a Cuba that transitions to democracy. The Castro regime's response to our offers has been continued repression of the Cuban people."
January 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution that saw its leader Fidel Castro head up a communist dictatorship vehemently opposed by the United States, just 90 miles (145 kilometers) to the north.
Washington implemented a crushing economic embargo in 1962 that remains in place to this day.
Castro, now 82, underwent gastrointestinal surgery in July 2006 and has not been seen in public since handing over power that same month to his younger brother Raul, who has implemented modest reforms to back off the hardline communism of the past five decades. The Bush administration has consistently said the steps are not enough.
"The world has witnessed other instances of dictatorship but has ultimately seen those regimes fall and formerly enslaved countries embrace their birthright of freedom. One day, the people of Cuba will enjoy this same blessing," Bush said.
In what was likely his final statement on Cuba before leaving office, Bush also said he has been personally touched by the plight of Cubans on the impoverished island over his eight years in Washington.
"Throughout my presidency, the plight of Cuba has been close to my heart. My sincere wish has been for the proud people of Cuba to take their rightful place in the community of democratic, freedom-loving nations."
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