(CNSNews.com) - A senior Bush administration official said the president may consider lifting the U.S. trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba, even if Cuban dictator Fidel Castro remains in power. But it would happen if, and only if, Castro allows free and internationally supervised Cuban National Assembly elections in 2003 and undertakes economic reforms.
According to a State Department release, the senior official, who was not named, told a Washington background briefing that Bush's recently announced "Initiative for a New Cuba" challenged the Castro government to comply with Article 71 of the Cuban Constitution. Article 71 requires free and fair elections to the Cuban National Assembly.
The official said if the 2003 Cuban Assembly elections are certified as being free and fair by international observers - and if Cuba also undertakes economic reforms -- then Bush would approach Congress with a proposal to lift the embargo.
The official emphasized that those two "benchmarks" would have to be met by Cuba before Bush would consider lifting the embargo that has been in place for more than forty years.
In that case, the official said, "It will no longer be Castro's Cuba, because Castro's Cuba has been characterized by the complete control of one political party for 43 years, over every single element of national life."
"And if there are free political parties, free press, access to the media, etc., that's no longer [Castro's Cuba], and we feel that there would have been sufficient progress toward a peaceful and rapid transition to democracy."
Asked about the effectiveness of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and why the Bush administration opposes economic engagement with Cuba while it trades with China, the official noted that China has a budding entrepreneurial class while Cuba's economy is entirely state-controlled.
Paraphrasing the president's words, the official said, "When you trade with China, the individual citizen can benefit. That's not the case with Cuba."
Radio Havana this week quoted Cuba's Economy and Planning Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez as saying that economic growth in Cuba should be better this year than it was last year. But he also said improvements will continue to be slow.
According to Rodriguez, the country's energy sector will continue to be squeezed by high oil prices. He made no mention of Venezuela's recent decision to cut off oil to Cuba.
Venezuela's state-run oil monopoly notified the Castro government last Friday that it would stop shipping oil to Cuba because of Cuba had fallen behind on its payments.
In addition, Rodriguez said sugar, one of Cuba's most important exports, will continue to see low prices. Its present rate is about six cents a pound, and economic forecasts say the price of sugar will drop even lower.
Rodriguez said the Cuban tourist industry has been recovering, and he expects that recovery to continue over the next few years. By the end of 2005, the communist run nation expects to welcome at least three million visitors a year.
Another concern for Cuba's economy is the high cost of borrowing money.
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