BRASILIA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro proposed on Thursday a swap of prisoners with the United States as a goodwill “gesture” to pave the way for talks with incoming U.S. President Barack Obama.
His offer to release political dissidents in exchange for the release of five convicted Cuban spies in U.S. prisons was the most specific proposal yet to ease ties with the United States since Obama, who takes office on January 20, was elected in November.
Castro’s comments are likely to fuel growing expectations in Latin America that the Obama administration will help thaw U.S.-Cuba ties that have been frozen since Washington imposed an economic embargo in 1962.
“Let’s do gesture for gesture,” Castro told reporters during a visit to the Brazilian capital Brasilia.
“These prisoners you talk about — they want us to let them go? They should tell us tomorrow. We’ll send them with their families and everything. Give us back our five heroes. That is a gesture on both parts,” he said, referring to the convicted Cuban spies.
On Tuesday, 33 Latin American and Caribbean leaders urged Obama to lift the embargo on the Communist country as soon as he takes office. They also demanded the immediate lifting of measures taken in the past five years by President George W. Bush to toughen the embargo against Cuba, where Fidel Castro seized power in a 1959 revolution.
“It’s not Cuba who has to ask for the end of the embargo,” said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who held the news conference with Castro. “There is no more justification for the embargo.”
Obama has said he was open to talks and has pledged to ease limits on Cuban-Americans who travel to their homeland and send money to relatives living there.
But he has said he would keep the four-decade-old U.S. trade embargo as leverage to influence changes in the one-party state.
Obama has so far not commented on remarks made by Raul and his brother, former Cuban president Fidel Castro, signaling a willingness to hold talks with his administration.
Castro said he was open to meet Obama anywhere but that the encounter had to be on equal terms, with U.S. recognition of the island’s sovereignty.
“Without a shadow (of doubt) over our sovereignty,” said Castro.
Castro, who at one point was visibly irritated by a reporter’s question about political dissidents in Cuba, was on the last day of his first foreign trip as president.
Since taking office in February, Raul Castro has bolstered ties with Russia and China and is now seeking to take advantage of Brazil’s stated goal of boosting Cuban trade, especially in its nascent oil industry.
“We want to help Cuba become self-sufficient in energy,” Lula told the Cuban delegation over lunch.
A U.S. court in June upheld the convictions of the so-called “Cuban Five,” who are serving long prison sentences for spying and conspiracy to commit murder, but opened the door to new and possibly lighter sentences for three of the men.
The men are celebrated by many in Cuba as national heroes who were spying on armed exile groups in Miami to prevent attacks on their country and are victims of Washington’s campaign against the communist-run island.
The United States regularly calls for the release of political dissidents held in Cuban prisons.
Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Sandra Maler