US President George W. Bush called on the world to steer Cuba out of its "tropical Gulag" toward democracy, drawing charges from Havana that he is inciting violence.
In his first address since 2003 to focus solely on Cuba, Bush on Wednesday also said he would create a "freedom fund" to promote democratic reforms in Cuba, taking advantage of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro's fading grip on power.
But he adamantly refused to lift the decades-old US sanctions on the communist island.
"Viva Cuba libre" -- long live a free Cuba -- Bush said in a speech at the US State Department.
Cuba immediately fired back, with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque accusing Bush of making "a plea for violence, a call for the use of force to topple the revolution and impose his ideas on Cuba."
The influential Cuban American National Foundation welcomed Bush's call for democratic reforms, but said his administration lacked a clear strategy to bring about a change in Cuba. It called for direct an substantial assistance to Cuba's democratic opposition.
Bush called on the international community to invest economic and political capital in Cuba's democracy movements and said countries that do business with Havana were enriching a brutal elite with an iron grip on power.
"The socialist paradise is a tropical Gulag," the president, who shared the stage with relatives of jailed opponents of Castro's regime, said in a reference to former Soviet prison camps for political dissidents.
Castro, 81, continues to be sidelined from power since he underwent gastrointestinal surgery in July last year. Raul Castro, 76, is serving as interim president of Cuba, while his elder brother recovers.
Bush flatly rejected widespread calls for lifting the nearly half-century US economic sanctions imposed after Cuba's 1959 revolution, including possible pending action at the UN.
"As long as the regime maintains its monopoly over the political and economic life of the Cuban people, the United States will keep the embargo in place," he said, to applause from the crowd.
But Bush said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Cuba-born US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez would seek contributions for a billion-dollar "freedom fund" tied to future democratic reforms in Havana.
"Now is the time to stand with the Cuban people as they stand up for their liberty. Now is the time for the world to put aside its differences and prepare for Cubans' transition to a future of freedom and progress and promise," he said.
The fund would provide grants and loans and debt relief to Cubans -- but only once their government has fully embraced core liberties like freedom of speech and of the press and periodic, free and fair multi-party elections.
Bush also called on other countries to make more public shows of support for democracy activists in Cuba, and warned that there may be a price to pay for countries that fail to help.
"The dissidents of today will be the nation's leaders tomorrow. When freedom finally comes, they will surely remember who stood with them," the president said.
He also had a message for Cuba's security apparatus, saying "When Cubans rise up to demand their liberty, the liberty they deserve, you've got to make a choice."
"Will you defend a disgraced and dying order by using force against your own people or will you embrace your people's desire for change?" Bush said.
A senior aide had said on Tuesday that this was not a call for "armed rebellion."
Bush, who never named either Castro, ruled out a softening of US policies if Raul were to take over permanently and enact what some Cubans expect to be piecemeal economic reforms.
"We will not support the old way with new faces, the old system held together by new chains. The operative word in our future dealings with Cuba is not stability; the operative word is freedom," he said.
But he said that he was prepared to allow non-governmental organizations and religious groups to provide computers and Internet access, as long as Havana lifts restrictions on using the World Wide Web.
And he invited young Cubans to take part in a scholarship program.
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