CORAL GABLES, Florida (AFP) — Calling Cuba a "dungeon" off US shores, US President George W. Bush said Friday that the US economic embargo would remain in place until Havana fully embraces democratic reforms.
"It's so sad that right off the shores of our great nation that believes in human rights and human dignity exists this dungeon. But someday Cuba will be free," Bush told an audience of Cuban-Americans.
With four weeks before the November 4 US elections, the vastly unpopular US president remains a star among hard-line exiles who fled the island after Fidel Castro led the 1959 revolution that eventually brought Havana close to Moscow.
Bush has said the US embargo in place since 1962 must only be lifted after Cuba allows unfettered freedom of speech, frees political prisoners, and holds free and fair elections.
"Until then we won't change, because our message is to the Cuban people, you're being repressed by a handful of elites that are holding back your great potential," he said Friday.
US officials say there have been no significant political changes in Cuba since Washington's longtime and increasingly frail nemesis, Fidel Castro, 82, stepped down as president in February and handed power to his younger brother Raul, 77.
And Bush took aim at the brothers, saying Washington had offered aid to Havana after hurricanes Ike and Gustav left Cuba reeling from almost nationwide destruction, only to be rebuffed.
"That aid was rejected by the Castros, which should tell the people of Cuba and the people around the world that the Castro people are only interested in themselves and their power, and not to the benefit and welfare of the Cuban people," said the US president.
Washington offered to send a team of experts to assess Cuba's needs after the storms, and pledged 100,000 dollars to be distributed through non-governmental organizations working there.
Cuba said it had its own assessment teams and urged Washington to ease its trade embargo to allow US firms to open private lines of credit for food imports to the island -- which the United States flatly rejected.
The neighbors do not have full diplomatic relations, and the United States has had a full economic embargo on Cuba since 1962.