Cuban president Raúl Castro willing to hold no-limits talks with America

News from Cuba | Friday, 27 July 2012

by Associated Press for the Guradian

Cuban president Raúl Castro said on Thursday that his government was willing to mend fences with its bitter cold war foe, the United States.

At the end of a Revolution Day ceremony marking the 59th anniversary of an uprising against dictator Fulgencio Batista's regime, Castro grabbed the microphone and made apparently impromptu remarks. He said no topic was off limits, including US concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights on the island, as long as it was a conversation between equals.

Washington would have to be prepared to hear Cuba's own complaints about those issues in the United States and Europe, he added. "We are nobody's colony, nobody's puppet," Castro said. "Any day they want, the table is set. This has already been said through diplomatic channels. If they want to talk, we will talk."

Washington and Havana have not had diplomatic relations for five decades and a 50-year-old US embargo outlaws nearly all trade with, and travel to, the island.

Mike Hammer, assistant secretary for public affairs at the US state department, responded by saying that before any meaningful engagement, Cuba must institute democratic reforms, improve human rights and release Alan Gross, a Maryland native serving 15 years in prison for bringing satellite and other communications equipment into Cuba illegally while on a USAid-funded democracy-building programme.

"Our message is very clear to the Castro government: 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," Hammer said. "They are the ones ultimately responsible for taking those actions, and today we have not seen them."

Hammer highlighted the brief detention earlier this week of dozens of dissidents outside the funeral of prominent activist Oswaldo Paya, who died in a car crash last weekend, saying: "The authoritarian tendencies are very evident on each and every day in Cuba."

Days after Paya's death, Castro had harsh words for the island's opposition, accusing them of plotting to topple the government.

"Some small factions are doing nothing less than trying to lay the groundwork and hoping that one day what happened in Libya will happen here, what they're trying to make happen in Syria," Castro said.

He also reminisced about the 1959 Revolution, promised that Cuba would complete a trans-island road, empathised with complaints about meagre salaries and said his five-year plan to overhaul Cuba's socialist economy would not be done hastily.

The 26 July national holiday was often used to make major announcements when Castro's older brother Fidel was president, but there were none on Thursday.

The main celebration kicked off at sunrise with music and speeches at a plaza in the eastern province of Guantánamo, home to the US naval base and military prison.

The US presence in Guantánamo is a sore point for Havana, which demands the base be shut down and accuses the US of torturing terror suspects held in the military prison.

"We will continue to fight such a flagrant violation ? Never, under any circumstance, will we stop trying to recover that piece of ground," said first vice-president José Ramón Machado Ventura.

Musicians sang the song Guantanamera and a girl read a speech paying homage to the revolution and resistance to "Yankee" imperialism.

"We will be like Che,'" she said, repeating the mantra taught to schoolchildren across the island. Argentine-born guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara is held up as a model of personal conduct in Cuba.

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