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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks on the Observance of Cuban Independence Day

1989-05-22

What a great pleasure, and thank you for that warm welcome. It's I who should be welcoming you to celebrate this wonderful occasion, the 87th anniversary of Cuban independence, and, you know, a special day. But you know, I would be delighted to be here on any day, for we Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the Cuban people. And that debt goes back to 1776, when George Washington's troops were short of food and supply.

Some of you may remember how the women of Havana banded together and raised 1.2 million livres for the cause of American freedom. And 126 years later, another people fought bravely for the cause of freedom. For it was on May 20th, 1902, after a long and brutal struggle, that the Cuban Republic was born. And we gather here to remember that victory and the fact that freedom knows no boundaries. Perhaps it was Cuba's George Washington, that great President, Jose Marti, who said it best: ``To beautify life is to give it an object.''

My friends, our object is human liberty and a free, united, and democratic Cuba. And as President I am unalterably committed to a free, united, democratic Cuba; and I'm not going to ever falter in that support. I know that you all are with me in that, and so is our country, for we oppose those who mock the very rights that we treasure: freedom of speech, religion, assembly, economic freedom. And in response, our demand is plain and simple: democracy and respect for human rights -- not sometime, not someday, but now.

And this afternoon I call on Fidel Castro to free all political prisoners and to conform to accepted international standards regarding human rights. And I challenge him to allow unrestricted access to the United Nations and other organizations monitoring their compliance, and a policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states. And on this celebration of Cuban Independence Day I challenge him, Fidel Castro, to take concrete and specific steps leading to free and fair elections and full democracy.

A useful first step would be to accept a proposed plebiscite in Cuba. I also strongly believe that Cubans who wish to leave Cuba should be allowed to do so -- a fundamental human right guaranteed by free nations. And I challenge Castro -- [applause] -- and I challenge him to show that Cuba is truly independent by sharply reducing the Soviet military presence there. And this I pledge: Unless Fidel Castro is willing to change his policies and behavior, we will maintain our present policy toward Cuba. Knock off this wild speculation as just that -- some suggesting that our administration is going to unilaterally shift things with Fidel Castro. I am not going to do that, and I'm glad you're here to hear it directly from me.

And until we see some of these changes I'm talking about, we will continue to oppose Cuba's reentry to the Organization of American States. And this too I promise: To help break down the monopoly on information that Castro has maintained for 30 years, we will continue Radio Marti, and we will push forward our proposal on TV Marti. It is important that the people of Cuba know the truth, and we will see that the people of Cuba do know the truth about their dictator and about the world.

And the thirst for democracy is unquenchable. And totalitarian systems everywhere are feeling new pressures from the people. You see it today on the television sets, coming out of China. We've seen those beginnings of it in the Soviet Union and many, many other countries around the world. And so, don't tell me that Cubans don't want freedom and democracy; they do. And I challenge Fidel Castro to let the will of the people prevail.

In short, what we want to do is to advance that day when Cuban Independence Day achieves a new and a richer meaning: freedom from the evil of tyranny and oppression; freedom from the economic misery wrought by the Communist misrule -- the freedom that can liberate lives and lift the human heart -- and, yes, the freedom of democracy.

To achieve that freedom, heroes must lead the way. In a sense, they already have, and are. For Cuba can claim many, many heroes -- those who struggled valiantly almost 90 years ago and those who struggle today -- unsung heroes, for example, like longtime political prisoner Alfredo Mustelier Nuevo, who refuses to give up; heroes like Dr. Claudio Benedi, here on stage, who has condemned eloquently -- repeatedly -- Castro's violation of human rights; or another great patriot of the Western Hemisphere, a hero of mine, a hero of our times, and I'm referring, of course, to Armando Valladares. Let the American people see him now -- 22 years in Castro's prisons. And he wrote a book about that ordeal. It meant a lot to the entire Bush family and has certainly been an inspiration to me. You've all read it, I hope. And if not, why, we can boost the sales by recommending it. [Laughter] It's called ``Against All Hope,'' and it describes how he, how Armando, survived beatings and starvations and unspeakable horror. And I'm sure many of you have read it, but it's a tribute to the arching human spirit, to that will to live, which helped endure the cruelest of regimes; a tribute, also, to the courage of the Cuban people, resolute and unafraid.

I had a discussion -- I told Armando, I think, this -- with one of the great leaders in this hemisphere. And he wondered why we were doing what we were doing in Central America. And I said, ``Well, I'll tell you why. It's a book called `Against All Hope.' That book relates to the deprivation of human rights in Cuba.'' And he said, ``Well, what does that have to do with Central America?'' I said, ``Read the book, and you'll see. Read the book, because you'll understand that a deprivation of human rights in a Cuban prison is no different than the deprivation of human rights in a prison in Nicaragua.'' And he did, and I hope it's made a difference in that country's approach to foreign policy. But whether it did or not, the respect I have for Armando and the courage he has shown really knows no bounds. It is absolutely without limits, and the fact that he headed our delegation fighting for human rights, I think, said an awful lot about our commitment, the commitment of every American to human rights and to freedom.

And so, the courage that is demonstrated by these -- and I risk offending by failing to mention others right here in this room -- but that courage has helped you and your families endure. And one day it will, I am convinced -- I really believe this -- unite a million free Cuban Americans with their long-suffering Cuban brothers. And if hope can stay alive in the heart of Armando Valladares, surely we will see Cuba free again.

Thank you for coming. God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:34 p.m. during a briefing in Room 450 at the Old Executive Office Building.

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