HAVANA (Reuters) - Former President Jimmy Carter and Cuban President Raul Castro discussed U.S.-Cuba relations in a meeting on Tuesday in which Castro repeated an offer to hold talks with the United States on any issue, Cuban state television said.
They met on the second day of Carter’s three-day private visit to Cuba after he said he hoped to help smooth over difficulties between the two longtime ideological enemies.
Carter, 86, is on his second diplomatic trip to the communist-led island following a groundbreaking 2002 visit.
The Cuban television report said Carter and Castro spoke about the “international situation, the situation in Cuba and the United States and relations between the two nations.”
It said Castro “reiterated Cuba’s disposition to dialogue with the North American government over any topic, but on equal terms, without conditions and with absolute respect for our independence and sovereignty.”
Castro, who succeeded his older brother, Fidel, as president three years ago, has made the same offer at various times, but Washington has not taken him up on it.
It was not known if the two discussed Alan Gross, a U.S. aid contractor sentenced by a Cuban court to 15 years in prison in a case that halted a brief warming in relations with the United States.
Video from a media pool showed them shaking hands and sitting down to talk, along with Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.
As they chatted in English and Spanish, Carter told Castro he and his wife came to Cuba in the 1950s for 36 hours. “We never went to bed, we had no hotel room,” he said.
This trip, made at the Cuban government’s invitation, has raised speculation that Carter would try to lay the groundwork for Gross’ release because he has acted as an unofficial diplomatic trouble-shooter in the past. In August he secured the release of an American jailed in North Korea.
Before meeting with Castro, Carter told reporters during a visit to an 18th century convent he had spoken to Cuban officials about Gross, but that “I am not here to take him out of the country.”
“I hope we will be able to contribute to better relations between the two countries,” Carter said in Spanish.
Gross, 61, was arrested in December 2009 while working in Cuba under a secretive U.S. program to promote political change by providing illegal Internet access.
Cuba views the work as part of ongoing U.S. attempts to undermine its government installed after a 1959 revolution.
The United States says Gross was only setting up Internet access for Jewish groups and committed no crimes. It has said there will be no further rapprochement until he is freed.
Carter’s visit has drawn interest because no other U.S. president, former or sitting, has come to Cuba since the revolution, even though the two countries are neighbors separated by just 90 miles of water.
In 2002 he met with dissidents and he will do so again on Wednesday. One of those scheduled to talk with Carter is dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who told Reuters it was “very, very, very respectful” that “he is inviting the great plurality and diversity of voices that there are in the country.”
The Cuban government considers dissidents to be traitors in the pay of the United States. A pro-government website carried a story on the planned meeting with the headline “Jimmy Carter will meet with Cuban mercenaries.”
Carter met on Monday with Jewish leaders and with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana.
It was not yet known if Carter will talk with Fidel Castro, who is 84 and stepped down from the presidency in 2008. Also unclear is whether Carter would be able to visit Gross.
Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Christopher Wilson