Obama asked Spain to deliver message to Cuba

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama asked Spain to pass Cuba a message on the need for democratic reform when he met Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero earlier this month, according to a U.S. official.

Six days after their meeting on October 13 at the White House, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos visited the Caribbean island and met President Raul Castro.

“When (Obama) learned that Foreign Minister Moratinos was about to go to Havana, he suggested that Moratinos urge the Castro regime to take steps to reform and improve human rights,” the U.S. official said on Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Washington and Havana have had hostile relations since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution steered Cuba toward communism.

The U.S. request to deliver a message to Cuba was first reported by Spain’s El Pais newspaper, which said Obama talked of a potential turning point in the relationship with Havana, but said it was important for Cuba take some steps.

“Have (Moratinos) tell the Cuban authorities we understand that change can’t happen overnight, but down the road, when we look back at this time, it should be clear that now is when those changes began,” Obama told Zapatero, according to diplomatic sources quoted by El Pais.

“We’re taking steps, but if they don’t take steps too, it’s going to be very hard for us to continue,” Obama said.

Obama has pledged a “new beginning” in relations with Cuba as part of a new era of U.S. partnership and engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean.

He has removed limits on Cuban-Americans traveling and sending remittances to the island, and begun talks on migration issues and the resumption of direct mail service broken off in 1963 between the two countries just 90 miles apart.

In one sign of a thaw in the relationship, a senior U.S. diplomat who participated last month in talks in Havana about resuming mail service stayed around to meet with Cuban officials and other Cubans.

But Obama has said the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the main point of contention between the two countries, should stay in place until Cuba releases political prisoners and improves human rights.

Moratinos met Castro on October 19 and said the communist leader had affirmed his commitment to economic reform and expressed his desire to continue improving relations with the United States.

Spain, one of Cuba’s biggest trading partners, has highlighted improved ties between the European Union and the island as one of its priorities when it takes over the rotating EU presidency in January.

Reporting by Caren Bohan and Tracy Rucinski; editing by Anthony Boadle