WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush ruled out any easing of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba but proposed loosening some restrictions on contacts with the communist-ruled island, if more freedoms were allowed.
Relatives of jailed dissidents in Cuba listen, as U.S. President George W. Bush speaks on policy toward Cuba.
Appearing with relatives of jailed Cuban dissidents and prominent Cuban-Americans at the State Department, Bush on Wednesday denounced the Caribbean country as a "tropical gulag."
He said Cuba is on the cusp of "fundamental change," with 81-year-old leader Fidel Castro sidelined for more than a year after abdominal surgery.
Nonetheless, easing the embargo would be "giving oxygen to a criminal regime," he said.
"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," Bush said. The end of communism in Cuba would reveal "horrors still unknown to the rest of the world," Bush said, calling the current government "a failed regime" and in its "dying gasps."
Bush encouraged U.S. allies to offer public support for dissidents by allowing them to meet and access outside media sources at their embassies.
"The dissidents of today will be the nation's leaders tomorrow," he said. "When freedom finally comes, they will surely remember who stood with them."
The United States has barred all trade with Cuba since 1963. But Bush said his administration would ease limits on aid agencies and church groups to let them provide computers to Cubans "if Cuba's rulers will end their restrictions on Internet access for all the people."
The United States would also let Cuban students take part in Latin American scholarship programs "if the Cuban rulers will allow them to freely participate," Bush added.
The White House announced last week that Bush would lay out a new strategy for promoting free speech and multi-party elections in Cuba, which has been a thorn in the American side since the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. The ailing revolutionary ceded power to his brother Raul 15 months ago, and Cuban officials have not said if or when Fidel Castro would resume his duties as president.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque responded to Bush's remarks by accusing him of inciting violence and issuing a call to arms. Bush's comments were "an appeal to use force to defeat the Cuban revolution" and an attempt to "re-conquer Cuba by force," Perez Roque told reporters in Havana.
It wasn't clear if Bush was trying to incite an internal uprising or an invasion, Perez Roque said, but he warned that thousands of Cubans would defend the revolution either way.
"We react with indignation but serenity," he said.
Few Cubans heard Bush's speech. It didn't run on state-run TV or radio, so only those few with access to satellite dishes had a chance to see it. E-mail to a friend