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No change in US policy following Castro resignation

The US will not change its policy towards Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro's resignation, demanding Havana launch democratic reforms before Washington modifies its position.

world Updated: Feb 20, 2008 10:02 IST

The US will not change its policy towards Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro's announcement that he is resigning as the communist country's president, demanding Havana launch democratic reforms before Washington modifies its position.

"There's no change in our policies," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Tuesday. "I don't believe that there is anyone contemplating that at this point either."

Castro, 81, announced in a letter to a government newspaper that he was retiring, 18 months after temporarily handing power to his brother, Raul, because of poor health.

President George W Bush, addressing reporters on a trip to Rwanda, called for "free and fair elections" in Cuba, but signalled he will not alter US policy until there is change on the communist island.

"There will be some who say, let's promote stability," Bush said. "Of course, in the meantime, political prisoners will rot in prison and the human condition will remain pathetic in many cases."

Bush has pursued a hard line policy toward Cuba during his years in the White House, tightening sanctions against a regime that has been Washington's biggest foe in the Western Hemisphere since Castro seized power in 1959.

"The question really should be, what does this mean for the people in Cuba?" Bush said. "They're the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro."

"I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of democratic transition," he said.

Bush called on the international community to support efforts to build democracy in Cuba, including the holding of elections.

"This transition ought to lead to free and fair elections - and I mean free and I mean fair, not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy," Bush said.

Bush was talking to reporters in Kigali, Rwanda, during his six-day trip to Africa. The US has rejected offers by Raul Castro to begin dialogue. McCormack said the US was still not interested in holding talks with a government under Raul Castro's guidance.

"We're nowhere near that point right now," McCormack said.

Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery in August 2006 and has since been rarely seen in public. His poor health has led to speculation within the exiled Cuban community living in the US that he was nearing death.

But some Cuban-American were sceptical that Tuesday's announcement would bring swift change to the island located 150 km off the Florida coast.

"This is more of the same. I want complete freedom," Miguel Saavedra said in Miami. "Communists don't give up and this a farce, a show that does not trick us."

"This is a strategy by the Cuban government to hand in power officially to Raul," Laudelina Rodriguez said.

The US has begun preparation for the end of the Casto regime, setting up an international fund to support a democratic transition and Cuba's economy once such a transition begins. The US government has also prepared for a sudden influx of refugees.

In October, Bush said Castro's regime was in its "dying gasps" and announced new initiatives aimed at easing a democratic transition and vowed to not ease the comprehensive economic embargo on the island that has been in place since the 1960s.

"America will have no part in giving oxygen to a criminal regime victimising its own people," Bush said at the time. "We will not support the old way with new faces, the old system held together by new chains."

Bush announced his initiative to set up an international, multi-billion dollar "freedom fund" that would provide loans and grants to Cubans to help the transition, but only after the government allows real elections and basic freedoms.

He attached similar strings to allowing non-governmental organisations to provide computers and the Internet to Cubans - if the regime lifted its restrictions on the media.

The Bush administration has also sought to further isolate the regime with more travel restrictions and clamped down on the amount of money Cuban Americans can send back.