Bush urges Cubans to 'work for democracy' in absence of Castro

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The Independent US

George Bush called on Cubans yesterday to work for democratic change in their Communist-ruled country, in an overt call for change after Fidel Castro temporarily relinquished power because of illness.

President Bush's first public statement since the temporary hand-over of power to Fidel's brother, Raul, on Monday was bound to anger Cuba's Communist Party, which has long accused the US of interference in Cuban affairs.

The US President promised full and unconditional support to those on the Caribbean island seeking democracy, adding: "We have repeatedly said that the Cuban people deserve to live in freedom."

The Communist Party emphasised that it would stay in control no matter what happened to Fidel, but failed to settle doubts over who was in charge of the island. In a typically cryptic message, the main Communist newspaper, Granma, printed part of an old speech by Raul, which said: "Only the Communist Party... can be the worthy heir of the trust Cubans have placed in their leader."

But there was still no sign of Fidel or his brother.

"Most people here, after 47 years of Castro's rule, are completely disassociated from the political process and have a fear of change," said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified. "That is certainly the message the government gives out to the people. They say, 'look at the plan that Bush has for you'. The government sees everything through the prism of the US."

The government has done what it can to persuade the Cuban people that Mr Castro's intestinal surgery is nothing serious and that he will soon return. But the statements issued by the leader himself have said that it is unclear how long his recovery will take.

Diplomats believe that Mr Castro may have undergone surgery last Monday morning and that the party hierarchy had waited until Monday evening ­ when it was clear that he had survived the operation ­ to make the announcement.