Cuba bristles at Bush amid growing uncertainty

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA - Cuba bristled at US President George W. Bush's call for democracy for the Communist island amid growing uncertainty after ailing President Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to brother Raul.

With neither Castro brother appearing in public, it was left to a Cuban television commentator to denounce Bush's statement urging the Cuban people to form a transitional government after 47 years under Castro.

"I urge the Cuban people to work for democratic change on the island. We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy," Bush said today in his first public statement on Cuba since the announcement on Monday that Castro had stomach surgery.

Communist Youth newspaper editor Rogelio Polanco said on Cuban television that Bush's urgings were futile.

"The only way to apply the Bush plan for regime change in Cuba is by force, and force will not work," he said.

"Raul is firmly at the helm of the nation and leading the armed forces that have a proven combat record and international experience. Make no mistake," Polanco warned.

Bush, whose administration has tightened the US embargo against Cuba, said, "It has long been the hope of the United States to have a free, independent and democratic Cuba as a close friend and neighbour."

Bush said: "We will take note of those in the current Cuban regime who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba."

Cuban commentators accused Bush of playing up to anti-Castro groups in Miami, whom they called a "bloodthirsty mafia" for encouraging an uprising against the Cuban government.

Cuban exiles danced in Miami streets after Castro's announcement on Monday. Yesterday a leading exile group, the Cuban American National Foundation, called for creation of a new government, saying Castro's era was over.

The Communist Party signalled through the main Communist newspaper Granma today that it remained firmly in control of the island.

But questions grew as there was still no public appearance by Raul Castro, 75, who has been silent and unseen since the announcement that Fidel had ceded power to him because he was undergoing surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding.

Analysts said Cuba's leaders may feel that if Raul appeared too early it might touch off panic among Cubans after so many years under Fidel.

Also still unanswered was whether Fidel Castro, the 79-year-old one-time guerrilla fighter, would ever return to power. Apart from an earlier statement that he was in stable condition, he too has remained out of sight.

- REUTERS

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