MIAMI, May 20 (UPI) -- President Bush reiterated his administration's hard-line Cuba policy Monday before a crowd of 4,000 Cuban-Americans who whooped and hollered at the president's condemnation of Fidel Castro.
Earlier in Washington, Bush said his administration would maintain the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba until Fidel Castro takes "meaningful" steps toward reform, but also opened the door to a gradual, quid pro quo easing of restrictions.
The president also called for free elections in 2003 before there is any consideration of lifting the trade embargo or the ban on travel to the communist nation.
After his speech, Bush attended a $25,000-a-couple dinner to benefit the state Republican party, and ultimately his younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is running for re-election.
Both of Florida's Democratic senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, attended the speech and both supported the Bush policy, almost a political necessity given the solid Cuban-American voting bloc in Miami.
Nelson said he was committed to the Senate passing a bill supporting the Varela Project, another issue strongly supported by the president.
The project first gained attention last week during a visit to Havana by former President Jimmy Carter. It takes advantage of a clause in the Cuban constitution that stipulates that any petition with 10,000 or more signatures will be put up for a vote.
Dissidents in Cuba have gathered 11,020 signatures on a petition demanding a vote on a wide range of political reforms including free democratic elections. Few people believe it will make the ballot, but it has become a cause in the United States.
"Those 11,000 people put their names on the line," Nelson said. "Can Castro put them in jail? Of course he has the power to do so. So let's give them (the dissidents) the help and support around the world so that little bit of freedom will continue to flourish."
Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was concerned about Cuba's bio-terrorism capabilities and challenged Bush to do something about it.
"It could be diplomatic such as we're doing with Iraq where we've gone into the United Nations and asked for international inspections or it could even be preparation militarily, either defensively or offensively against this heightened threat," Graham said.
Others were more upbeat after Bush's performance.
"This is 100 years of celebration of Cuba's Republic and independence, 50 years of which was without freedom. We certainly pray tonight that freedom for Cuba is close," said Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the politically powerful Cuban American National Foundation.
"After 50 years of misery and oppression in Cuba, I believe we are in the very last episode of his drama," said Antonio Jorge, Cuban-born professor at Florida International University. "I think the Castro regime is in its death throes at this point."
The Bush visit came 19 years after a similar visit on Cuban Independence Day by then President Ronald Reagan.
At that speech in the Miami Auditorium he also said Castro must go.
"Cuba si, Castro no," the president told a cheering crowd of supporters.