Castro's Cuba shrugs off US plea for change

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Cuba yesterday shrugged off efforts by the Bush administration to push for political change on the island in the wake of Fidel Castro's illness. It dismissed statements from President Bush and the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, as fodder for the Cuban exile community in Miami only.

"Nobody in Cuba is going to listen to a message that comes from a functionary of a foreign government. That has no value for Cubans," the Culture Minister, Abel Prieto, told reporters in Havana. "I don't feel any uncertainty. The people love Fidel and that has been seen in these days."

Both Mr Prieto and the Health Minister, José Ramón Balaguer, said Mr Castro's condition was "satisfactory" following surgery for intestinal bleeding last Monday. Mr Balaguer said it would not be long before Mr Castro was back at work, taking back the reins of power from his brother, Raul, who is temporarily in charge of the country.

The White House has stopped short of calling for open insurrection in Cuba, but both President Bush and Ms Rice made it clear that the United States relished the prospect of the end of the 47-year Castro regime and the possible beginning of a new era of US-style democracy.

Ms Rice went on air on Friday night to encourage Cubans to "work at home for positive change". She promised humanitarian support to Cubans, "as you begin to chart a new course for your country".

"Much is changing there," she said. "We will stand with you to secure your rights - to speak as you choose, to think as you please, to worship as you wish, and to choose your leaders, freely and fairly, in democratic elections."

The Cuban government, however, was unimpressed. "I think all these messages are pure rhetoric for Miami," Mr Prieto said. The statements by Mr Prieto and Mr Balaguer suggested some tentative return to stability following last week's uncertainty.

In Miami's Little Havana, anti-Castro exiles have moderated their initial excitement that Mr Castro might be out of power for good - or even dead. On Monday night, Cuban exiles were honking horns and waving flags at a giant street party on Miami's Calle Ocho.

The diminished enthusiasm about the possible end of Fidel had a knock-on effect in Congress, where a bipartisan effort to raise $80m (£42m) for a so-called "Fund for a Free Cuba" failed on Thursday night. The measure was co-sponsored by Florida's two Senators, the Democrat Bill Nelson and the Republican Mel Martinez, himself a Cuban American.

In Cuba, government media spent much of yesterday playing up the possibility that the United States might yet try to invade the island. Reports in Granma, the official newspaper, said the government had mobilised citizen defence militias and asked military reservists to check in every day.

White House press secretary Tony Snow dismissed the idea of an invasion as absurd.

"The US has absolutely no designs on invading Cuba," he told reporters at President Bush's ranch in Texas. "Cubans are going to have to chart their destiny. It's the one thing that they have been deprived of during the dictatorship of Fidel Castro."