AP Interview: Cuba FM says ready for talks with US
By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer
UNITED NATIONS -- Cuba is willing to hold talks with the United States
"on any level," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Wednesday in
conciliatory remarks aimed at the Obama administration.
Rodriguez said in an interview with The Associated Press the island
nation was waiting for a response from Washington to Cuba's offer to
His comments came despite a testy exchange between the top Cuban
diplomat and a senior U.S. official just before the U.N. General
Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn America's 47-year trade embargo.
This year's U.N. vote was 187-3 in opposition to the embargo, up from
185-3 last year, with only Israel and the tiny Pacific island nation of
Palau supporting the United States. Micronesia and the Marshall Islands
abstained both years.
It was the 18th year in a row that the General Assembly has taken up the
symbolic measure, and the first since President Barack Obama took office
in January, promising to extend a hand of friendship to Washington's
That change in approach has been noticed by Havana, Rodriguez said.
"We are prepared to have a dialogue with the government of the United
States at any level," the foreign minister told AP after the vote,
adding that such talks must be held on the basis of mutual respect and
He reiterated that Cuba formally offered in July to hold expanded talks
with the United States to cooperate in combatting terrorism and drug
trafficking, and to work together to fight natural disasters, among
"We are waiting for the North American response," Rodriguez said. He
also said Cuba has been pleased by progress of ongoing talks on
migration and re-establishing direct mail service. He called those
discussions "productive and respectful."
Rodriguez's tone in the interview was markedly different from that in
his speech before the General Assembly, in which he claimed the embargo
- which the Cubans refer to as a blockade - had cost the island's
fragile economy tens of billions of dollars over the years and prevented
Cuban children from getting needed medical care.
"The blockade is an uncultured act of arrogance," Rodriguez said. He
likened the policy to "an act of genocide" that is "ethically unacceptable."
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice reacted strongly, calling the Cuban
diplomat's statements "hostile" and "straight out of the Cold War era."
"Here we go again," she said of Rodriguez's speech. "I suppose old
habits die hard."
Still, Rice said the Obama administration was committed to writing "a
new chapter to this old story" by engaging with the Cuban government,
and she used the bulk of her speech to highlight the steps Washington
had already taken to improve ties.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the General
Assembly vote on the embargo ignored U.S. efforts to help Cubans.
"This yearly exercise at the U.N. obscures the facts that the United
States is a leading source of food and humanitarian relief to Cuba,"
Kelly said. "In 2008, the United States exported $717 million in
agricultural products, medical devices, medicine, wood and humanitarian
items to Cuba."
Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Cuba,
reacted to the U.N. vote by saying Obama has an opportunity to earn the
Nobel Peace Prize he was recently selected to receive by lifting the
"Obama, earn the prize. It's also a good opportunity to go down in
history," Chavez said, adding that it would be a shame if Obama "wastes
Rodriguez told AP he was "a little bit surprised" by the vehemence of
Rice's initial comments, saying he knew and respected her and held her
in high esteem.
"She is an articulate person, a decent and well-meaning person, like
president Obama," he said. "And we respect both of them for that."
He added that Cuba recognizes there may be opportunities for talks with
the Obama administration that were not possible with the administration
of former President George W. Bush.
The Obama administration has loosened financial and travel restrictions
on Americans with relatives in Cuba, and started talks aimed at
restoring direct mail links. It sent a senior diplomat to Havana in
September for unannounced meetings with Cuban officials that were
believed to be the highest-level talks between the two countries in decades.
Still, the U.S. has made clear it is not prepared to lift the embargo
until Cuba accepts some political, economic and financial changes.
That position met a chilly reception during Wednesday's vote.
One after another, global representatives stood to speak in opposition
to the embargo, calling it a cruel anachronism that ran counter to
international law and which had only succeeded in hurting ordinary Cubans.
"The time to end this embargo is long overdue," said South African U.N.
ambassador Baso Sangqu, adding that the embargo had "caused untold
suffering" to Cuba's people.
Even America's traditional regional and global allies were blunt in
their criticism, with the European Union countries coming out
unanimously against Washington's policy.
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