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Obama wants "real change" in Cuba before normal ties
MIAMI (Reuters) - The United States needs to see "real change" in Cuba before there can be normal relations between the two neighbors, President Barack Obama said.
In comments that appeared to dampen prospects for any quick improvement in U.S.-Cuban ties, Obama told the Miami-based Spanish-language station WLTV Univision 23 that despite "some talk" of reforms by Cuba's communist rulers, he did not see "realistic" changes happening yet on the Caribbean island.
"I would welcome real change from the Cuban government ... For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we've got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet," Obama said in an interview broadcast late on Thursday and on Friday.
Cuban President Raul Castro, who says he is willing to discuss any issue with Washington after a half century of ideological hostility, has launched a range of economic reforms aimed at revitalizing Cuba's centralized socialist economy.
This has included more opening for private initiative, although Castro insists Cuba will not shift to capitalism.
Havana, which demands an end to the long-running U.S. trade and financial embargo on Cuba, has released dozens of political prisoners into exile in an accord with the Catholic Church.
But Obama said the government headed by Raul Castro, who succeeded his older brother and veteran Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2008, had yet to deliver real change that his administration could respond to.
"The bottom line is political prisoners are still there who should have been released a long time ago who never should have been arrested in the first place; political dissent is still not tolerated. The economic system there is still far too constrained," said.
He added: "If you think about it, Castro came into power before I was born - he's still there and he basically has the same system when the rest of the world has recognized that the system doesn't work."
The U.S. president's clear conditioning of any significant improvement in ties to actions expected from the Cuban side was likely to disappoint those seeking more unilateral moves by him to relax the U.S. sanctions against the island.
Since taking office in January 2009, Obama has eased some aspects of the embargo, such as lifting restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, permitting some U.S. telecommunications business with the island, and boosting the categories of non-tourist travel to Cuba by Americans to try to promote "people-to-people" contacts.
In the interview, Obama was asked about the death on Sunday of a Cuban dissident whom fellow opponents of the government said had been beaten by police. Cuba's government has denied this, saying he died of natural causes.
"He shouldn't have been arrested in the first place," Obama said, although he added more details needed to be known about this specific incident.
"There have been thousands of people who have suffered as a consequence of oppressive actions by the Cuban regime," Obama added, saying his administration would work to try to bring more prosperity and freedom to the Cuban people.
(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Anthony Boadle)
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