Raúl Castro offers to meet Barack Obama on 'neutral ground'

Campaign News | Friday, 28 November 2008

From The Times

Raúl Castro, Cuba’s President, has offered to meet Barack Obama on “neutral ground” - suggesting the American base at Guantánamo Bay as a suitable venue for what would be the first meeting in almost half a century between leaders of Cuba and the US.

The Communist leader, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, stopped short of agreeing to visit Washington to meet the President-elect. The head of the Communist regime and a US president have not come face to face since the island's revolution in 1959.

Mr Castro’s offer came in a rare interview in Havana with the Hollywood actor Sean Penn, who wrote about the encounter for the US magazine The Nation.

When the left-wing star asked Mr Castro if he would meet Mr Obama in the US capital, the Cuban President replied that he “would have to think about it”. Mr Castro said that it would not be fair for either leader to go to the other’s territory. Instead, he suggested Guantánamo Bay, the site of the notorious US prison camp that Mr Obama has pledged to close.

“We must meet and begin to solve our problems, and at the end of the meeting we could give the President a gift . . . we could send him home with the American flag that waves over Guantánamo Bay,” Mr Castro said.

The Obama transition team declined to comment yesterday on the Cuban leader’s invitation.

President Castro has offered to meet US officials several times since he took over from Fidel. He said that Cuba’s main focus in such a meeting would be to normalise trade, which has been frozen since the embargo imposed by Washington in 1962.

“The only reason for the blockade is to hurt us,” Mr Castro said. “Nothing can deter the revolution. Let Cubans come to visit with their families. Let Americans come to Cuba.”

Mr Obama has said that he is willing to meet Raúl Castro without preconditions and, after taking office in January, plans immediately to lift all restrictions on family travel and financial remittances to the island.

Mr Obama has said that he would not support lifting the embargo until Cuba releases all political prisoners. An independent human rights group has said that there are 219 prisoners of conscience on the island.

Questioned on Cuba’s human rights record, Mr Castro told Penn: “No country is 100 per cent free of human rights abuses.” But he insisted that “reports in the US media are exaggerated and hypocritical”.

Faced with accusations of human rights abuses, Cuba often points to allegations of torture and abuse at the US military’s Guantánamo prison in eastern Cuba. Raúl Castro, 77, rarely gives interviews and this was his first with an American since being named interim President in late July 2006.

Mr Castro officially assumed the presidency in February when his older brother, now 82, resigned for health reasons. He has promised change by next February.

In an earlier interview, Mr Castro told the Communist Party newspaper Granma that Cuba was open to normalising relations, but gave warning that the US Government would get nowhere with threats or pressure. “What we do not accept is the arrogant and interventionist policy frequently assumed by the current Administration,” he said.

In The Nation article, to be published next month, Penn wrote that he told Mr Castro that some Republicans in the US had called for ending the embargo, to give Cubans more contact with the outside world and empower them to end the “dictatorship”. Mr Castro ignored the slight.

The possibility of talks between Mr Castro and Mr Obama offers hope to black Cubans, who have long complained that the 1959 revolution did nothing to better their situation. Most are in low-paid menial jobs and complain of institutionalised racism.

Victor Fowler, a black Cuban poet, wrote after Mr Obama’s victory: “What fills my eyes are tears of pride and a profound relief. I look at my skin, that of my children and I cry and smile.”

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