President George W. Bush on Friday scolded major democracies that do business in Cuba and spurned calls to end hardline US policies now that Fidel Castro has officially given up power.
"That sentiment is exactly backward. To improve relations, what needs to change is not the United States, what needs to change is Cuba," Bush said after meeting with relatives of imprisoned democratic activists.
"So far, all Cuba has done is replace one dictator with another. And its former ruler is still influencing events from behind the scenes," he said, referring to the recent handover of power from Fidel to his brother Raul Castro.
The seamless transfer has fueled mounting pressure, including from Democratic presidential hopefuls, to lift the embargo Washington imposed on Cuba not long after the 1959 revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power.
But Bush has argued that this would amount to doing business with a brutally oppressive regime, rewarding it for crackdowns on human rights and democratic activists, and has said the regime would siphon off any economic gains.
Bush charged that Cuba had cracked down last week on activists handing out copies of the UN Declaration on Human Rights even as it moved to sign the UN-backed International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"The international community applauded Cuba for signing a piece of paper, but on the abuses that same week much of the world was silent," said the US president. Washington had pushed Cuba to sign the treaty for years.
The European Union, led by Slovenia as holder of the rotating EU presidency, welcomed the signing as "a positive development" even as some of Cuba's dissidents called it "a farce."
"Unfortunately, the list of countries supporting the Cuban people is far too short and the democracies absent from that list are far too notable," said Bush, who did not name names but called silence in the face of abuses "a sad and curious pattern."
Bush said US-Cuba relations cannot improve until Havana releases all political prisoners; respects human rights "in word and deed"; and moves ahead with "free and fair elections."
He spoke as he welcomed Miguel Sigler Amaya and Josefa Lopez Pena, the brother and sister-in-law of Cuban political prisoners Ariel and Guida Sigler Amaya.
"Josefa was ordered to leave Cuba with Miguel once he was released from prison in 2006. In Cuba, they're considered outlaws. In America, they are heralds of freedom, and I'm proud to stand with them," said Bush.
Some critics of the US embargo have warned that it not only failed to bring down Castro but actually helped him by providing an easy target to blame for economic hardships, notably when Soviet support dried up as the Cold War ended.
Others have pointed to growing US economic ties to countries like China, despite rights concerns there, to say that Cuba faces a double-standard tied to the presence of anti-Castro exiles living in electorally crucial Florida.
More than 100 lawmakers in the US House of Representatives have written to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging a change in US trade policy. Business leaders have also joined calls for a policy shift.
US sanctions on Cuba began in 1960 as Havana nationalized US properties and moved towards the creation of a one-party communist system, and a full economic embargo took force in 1962.
Trade, trade and diplomatic restrictions have been tightened several times, though Bush noted that food and medicine still flow from the United States to Cuba's people.
In October, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the 16th straight year to end the embargo. The number of states voting in favor of doing so has grown over the years.
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