Tuesday, July 31, 2012

US to Cuba: Relations Depend on Freedoms

US to Cuba: Relations Depend on Freedoms
July 30, 2012

Washington is willing to talk with Havana about ensuring political
rights of expression if Cuba wants to improve U.S. relations, the State
Department said.

The Obama administration is prepared to "forge a new relationship" with
Cuba, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer said
after Cuban President Raul Castro expressed an interest Thursday in
starting a dialogue with Washington to mend fences.

The Castro regime must make democratic reforms and improve human rights,
Hammer said.

"Our message is very clear to the Castro government," he said. "They
need to begin to allow for the political freedom of expression that the
Cuban people demand and we are prepared to discuss with them how this
can be furthered."

Cuba must also release U.S. government contractor Alan Gross of Potomac,
Md., Hammer said.

Gross, an international development expert, is serving 15 years in a
Cuban prison after being convicted in March 2011 of crimes against the
Cuban state. He was arrested in 2009 bringing satellite phones and
computer equipment into Cuba while working for the U.S. Agency for
International Development on a democracy-building project.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., met with Castro
in February in an unsuccessful bid to win Hammer's freedom.

Gross' wife, Judy Gross, told Politico in March she considered her
husband "a pawn from a failed policy between the two governments."

The United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with Cuba
since Jan. 3, 1961, and has maintained an embargo that makes it illegal
for U.S. corporations to do business with the island nation, 90 miles
south of Key West, Fla.

Raul Castro made his mending-fences remarks at a ceremony in Guantanamo,
Cuba, observing Cuba's National Day of Rebellion -- the anniversary of
former President Fidel Castro's July 26, 1953, uprising against dictator
Fulgencio Batista, which marked the beginning of the Cuban revolution.

Raul Castro is Fidel Castro's younger brother.

"The day they are ready, the table is set, and this has been
communicated through the regular diplomatic channels," Raul Castro said
in remarks broadcast several times over Cuba's state-controlled media
and published by the official Cuban news agency Prensa Latina.

"If they want to hold a discussion, we will do so, but on equal terms,
because we are no one's subjects, nor a colony, nor anyone's puppets,"
he said.

Havana is ready to discuss "the problems of democracy, as they say,
freedom of speech, human rights, the things they have invented for
years," CNN quoted him as saying.

Cuba would also voice its own grievances, he said as he called for
"bilateral understanding," Prensa Latina said.

"Hostility from Washington," mainly through the embargo, has led to
Cuban economic losses of more than $975 billion, the news agency said.

Castro said Cuba and the United States could be adversaries on the
baseball diamond but not the geopolitical theater.

"If they want confrontation, it must be in sports -- preferably baseball
-- nothing else," he told a crowd gathered for the 59th anniversary

"We must respect one another. You cannot run the world -- that's crazy,
especially on the basis of repeated lies," Castro said.

Castro's remarks were not the first time he expressed a willingness to
talk with Washington.

In April 2009 he said during a summit of leftist Latin American leaders
in Venezuela he was willing to discuss "everything, everything,
everything" with the United States, including human rights, freedom of
the press and political prisoners.

During his Thursday remarks -- which CNN said appeared impromptu --
Castro said "small factions" within Cuba were "trying to lay the
groundwork so that one day what happened in Libya will happen here, what
they're trying to make happen in Syria."

That will never happen in Cuba, he asserted.

"Here we are, with our troops, as prepared as ever, just in case," he
said, adding: "Once again I proclaim our interest in peace. We have no
interest in harming anyone, but our people will defend themselves, and
we all know what to do under any circumstance."

Prominent Cuban political activist Oswaldo Paya Sardinas died Sunday in
a car crash. Havana said the driver of Sardinas' car lost control of the
vehicle and hit a tree, but Paya's children said the car had been
deliberately run off of the road.

Hammer in Washington pointed Thursday to Cuba's brief detention of
dozens of dissidents outside Paya's funeral this week.

"The authoritarian tendencies are very evident on each and every day in
Cuba," he said.

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