President George W. Bush says he hopes that the resignation of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro will mean the beginning of a democratic transition in Cuba:
"Eventually, this transition will lead to free and fair elections. And I mean free and I mean fair. Not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy."
For nearly half a century, Fidel Castro has repressed the people of Cuba as their absolute dictator. Soon after he came to power in 1959, Castro moved Cuba on a course that aligned it with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and put into place a Communist system that endures on the island to this day.<!-- IMAGE -->
For all those years, Castro spurned calls to respect human rights and allow democratic change. His government maintained a tight monopoly on Cuba's media and harassed and imprisoned pro-democracy activists and independent journalists. Dissidents received sham trials and suffered in life-threatening prison conditions. Cubans did not even have the right to talk about changing their government.
In March 2003, seventy-five independent thinkers, journalists, librarians, and academics were arrested. They were sentenced to as many as twenty-five years in prison for merely exercising their fundamental rights. President Bush said that the first step for the Cuban government to take following Fidel Castro's resignation should be to free all of Cuba's political prisoners:<!-- IMAGE -->
"I've met with some of the families of [the] prisoners. It just breaks your heart that people have been thrown in prison because they dared speak out. They're the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro. They're the ones who are put in prison because of their beliefs. They're the ones who've been denied their right to live in a free society."
Now that Fidel Castro has stepped down, said President Bush, the international community should work with the Cuban people to start building institutions necessary for democracy. "And we're going to help," said Mr. Bush. "The United States," he said, "will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty."