April 29, 2009 / 2:08 PM / 10 years ago

Cuba's Raul Castro repeats offer to U.S. for talks

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro repeated on Wednesday an offer to discuss “everything” with the United States to try to improve ties, but said Cuba did not have to make conciliatory “gestures” to its long-time enemy.

Cuba's President Raul Castro (R) attends the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Casa de las Americas in Havana April 28, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

His comments kept the door open for negotiations with U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, but also signaled such a process might not be easy because of Cuba’s belief that concessions must come chiefly from the United States.

“We have reiterated that we are willing to talk about everything with the United States, in equality of conditions, but not to negotiate our sovereignty, nor our political and social system, the right to self-determination, nor our internal affairs,” Castro said in a speech to a ministerial meeting in Havana of the Non-Aligned Movement.

“Cuba has not imposed sanctions against the United States ... and therefore it is not Cuba that has to make gestures,” he said.

Obama earlier this month eased the U.S. trade embargo, a Cold War policy imposed against communist-ruled Cuba since 1962, by removing limits on travel by Cuban Americans and remittances sent to the island. He also lifted restrictions for U.S. telecommunications companies wanting to operate in Cuba.

Asked about Castro’s latest comments, State Department spokesman Robert Wood countered that Cuba must show it was serious about dialogue by releasing political prisoners and taking other steps to improve human rights.

“We’re interested in a dialogue with Cuba, but I think the international community wants to see some steps from Havana to gauge how serious the government there is,” Wood told reporters in Washington.

While he has called for a new U.S. policy toward Cuba, Obama has said the embargo should stay in place as leverage for Cuban progress on democracy and human rights.

“There’s no plan at this point to lift that embargo, but we do want to do what we can to support the Cuban people,” said Wood.

‘MORAL PRETEXT’

Raul Castro said Obama’s recent measures were “positive” but “limited in scope.”

“There is no political or moral pretext that justifies continuing that policy,” he said of the embargo, put in place by President John F. Kennedy 47 years ago with the aim of toppling the Cuban government.

Raul Castro has offered wide-ranging talks with the U.S. before, the last time on April 16, when he said topics could include political prisoners — whom Cuba views as “mercenaries” in the service of the United States — as well as democracy and freedom of the press.

The Obama administration greeted the April 16 comments as an important gesture, but Raul Castro’s older brother, former leader Fidel Castro, wrote a few days later that the words had been “misinterpreted” and he indicated Cuba had no intention of making concessions to Washington.

Raul Castro replaced his brother as president last year, but the 82-year-old Fidel Castro retains a powerful role in the government he led for nearly half a century.

In recent days, Cuban and U.S. officials have begun informal talks in Washington to explore ways of improving relations that have been hostile since Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and turned Cuba into a communist state.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas Shannon, met the head of Cuba’s Interest Section, Jorge Bolanos, on Monday as a follow-on from another meeting they had in Washington on April 13.

Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington; Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara

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