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Washington Journal: U.S. Extends Hand To Cuban People

Washington, 6 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has announced a series of new measures extending a hand of friendship to the Cuban people in an effort to promote a peaceful democratic transition on the Caribbean island.

At the same time, the U.S. said it would not change its relationship with the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro, who it accused of heavy-handed efforts to crush dissent.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Tuesday explained the various measures she said were designed to reach out to the Cuban people and make it clear to them that the United States "is on their side."

Albright recalled that one year ago Pope John Paul visited Cuba and brought to the island a message of hope. She said that thanks to him, Christmas was restored to the people of Cuba.

Said Albright: "Unfortunately, the Cuban government has shown no interest in restoring other freedoms. On the contrary, authorities have been heavy-handed in crushing efforts to express dissent or to mobilize support for internationally recognized human rights."

Albright noted a statement by U.S. President Bill Clinton who said Tuesday that the new measures are designed to promote closer ties between the Cuban and American people, "without providing aid and comfort to a repressive and backward-looking regime."

She said it is the responsibility of the U.S. and its partners in the hemisphere to maintain pressure for democratic change in Cuba.

She said: "Next year the world will begin a new century. In Cuba, where the population is especially young, the personalities and policies, the leadership remain mired in the past, but the focus of the people is rightly on the future."

Albright said: "We and the people of Cuba must act with tomorrow in mind. Fully aware of present obstacles, we share a faith in the power of liberty to inspire peaceful but far-reaching change. Although we cannot foretell how soon, we know the day is drawing closer when the community of freedom will once more encompass the pearl of the Antilles, and the hemisphere of the American democracies will be complete."

Albright said the U.S. administration will continue to support adequate funding for broadcasting to Cuba.

The new steps, authorized by President Clinton, include increased charter flights to and from Cuba, expanded payments sent to Cuban families by U.S. residents, direct mail service with the island, and the sale of U.S. food and agricultural supplies to nongovernmental entities in Cuba.

Clinton also authorized increased exchanges of athletes, scientists and others.

The measures can be undertaken by presidential order and need no congressional approval.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba, imposed 37 years ago, will remain in effect. So will additional restrictions added three years ago after Cuban fighter jets shot down two unarmed planes piloted by Cuban-American exiles near Cuba. They were there to protest Cuban government policies.

Meanwhile, the Cuban American National Foundation, an exile group based in Miami, Florida issued a statement welcoming the changes. It said most of the measures announced Tuesday are consistent with current policy.

In Cuba, Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina greeted the U.S. measures with some skepticism, saying Cuba would take a "wait and see" attitude about the announcement.