Bush unveils Cuban sanctions to win over exile community

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President George Bush unveiled new measures to tighten sanctions on Cuba last night. They were aimed at winning over the Cuban exile vote in the vital electoral state of Florida as much as hastening the end of the regime of Fidel Castro.

The steps, the latest in almost 45 years of futile attempts by Washington to bring down Mr Castro, include the strengthening of a US travel embargo on the island, a crackdown on illicit cash transfers and an intensification of the propaganda campaign against the Communist government.

Announcing the moves at a White House meeting with members of the Cuban American community, Mr Bush said that he was acting now because Mr Castro had behaved with "contempt and disdain" in launching a "new round of oppression" that had outraged the international community".

He appeared to be referring to the imprisonment in March of 75 dissidents. It was clear that without outside pressure, the regime would never change of its own accord, he said, "But Cuba must change," he added.

The White House is also creating a Commission for the Assistance of a Free Cuba, to be headed by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State and the Housing Secretary, the Cuban-born Mel Martinez. The commission would help prepare the island's transition to democracy once the Castro regime had disappeared.

But their main purpose is more immediate - to consolidate Republican support among the 500,000-strong Cuban community in Florida, a state which Mr Bush won over Al Gore by the narrowest and most controversial of margins in 2000, and which could be pivotal in 2004.

The White House also hopes to placate the Cuban community in Miami, which was furious at the Bush administration in July when its agreed to hand back 15 migrants to Havana after being promised that they would not be executed for hijacking the boat in which they arrived in the US.

The package, unlikely to be more successful than previous US attempts aimed at making Mr Castro change his ways, will strictly enforce an existing ban forbidding US citizens from visiting Cuba for pleasure. It will also strengthen controls on shipments to the island, and increase the number of Cuban immigrants to the US.

Mr Bush told the Cuban exile leaders that the US was enlisting new international support for its efforts to isolate Mr Castro. But hardly had he spoken than Canada, which has long criticised the American approach, expressed concern yesterday for Canadian companies which have Cuban operations, in defiance of US pressure. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill were also sceptical about the crackdown.

On Thursday Dagoberto Rodriguez, the head of Cuba's diplomatic mission in the USdeclared that President Bush should "stop acting like a lawless cowboy" and "start listening to the voices of the nations of the world".