HAVANA (Reuters) - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson offered on Friday to set up talks between the Cuban government and Cuban Americans with the aim of ending five decades of mutual animosity and helping restore U.S.-Cuba relations.
At the conclusion of a five-day visit to the communist-led island, he said he had not seen a better atmosphere for improving relations between the two countries, but that things would have to proceed gradually to overcome years of bad blood.
Richardson, a Hispanic Democrat who has a history of being a diplomatic trouble-shooter, said he came to Cuba on a trade mission for New Mexico, not at the behest of the White House.
But the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said he would report his findings to President Barack Obama next week.
Obama has said he wants to “recast” relations with Cuba, and has taken steps such as easing the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against the island and renewing talks on immigration.
Richardson, speaking in both English and Spanish, said he has proposed informal Cuban-Cuban American talks as a way of improving relations between two groups who have been bitter enemies since Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and many Cubans fled to Miami.
“If there’s going to be a solution to the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, Cuban Americans must play a role,” said Richardson.
Cuban Americans have for years played a big role in shaping U.S. policy toward their homeland, particularly by helping elect politicians who voted to maintain the embargo, imposed since 1962 to undermine the Cuban government.
Many of them have never lost the dream of returning to Cuba, and have fought against anything they view as helping the communist government.
In recent days, some Cuban Americans have criticized Colombian musician Juanes, who lives in Miami, for his plans to play a September concert in Havana’s Revolution Square.
Richardson disagreed with the criticism, saying the concert would be “healthy” for U.S.-Cuba relations.
Despite the Juanes dust-up, Richardson said “there are many Cuban Americans who feel dialogue (with Cuba) is needed” and that he “would be very pleased to broker such a discussion.”
He said he talked informally with Cuban American “political friends” in Miami before flying to Cuba, and in Havana he met with two of the government’s key officials for U.S. policy — Cuban parliament president Ricardo Alarcon and Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez.
Richardson said he did not meet with President Raul Castro, or his older brother Fidel Castro, with whom in 1996, as a U.S. congressman, he negotiated the release of three Cuban political prisoners. He said he did not meet with the Castros because as a governor he did not have sufficient political stature.
Richardson called for other measures to increase “people-to-people” contact, which he said was needed to “build more confidence in each other before we tackle the bold, divisive issues” such as the embargo and Cuban human rights.
Obama has said the embargo, which the Cuban government blames for many of its problems, would stay in place until Cuba releases political prisoners and improves human rights.
Cuba has said it will discuss everything with the United States but will make no concessions on what it considers sovereign issues.
Richardson said the biggest obstacles he sees to improved relations is U.S. inattention and Cuban obstinacy.
“The United States needs to pay more attention to the Cuba issue” and Latin America in general, said Richardson.
“On the Cuban side, I note a lack of flexibility in their positions. There needs to be reciprocity when one side takes action,” he said.
Richardson would not comment when asked about Thursday’s news that U.S. prosecutors would not press charges after investigating allegations he had given state business to companies in exchange for campaign contributions.
The allegations forced him to withdraw his name from consideration in January after Obama nominated him for U.S. Commerce Secretary.
Editing by Jim Loney and Mohammad Zargham