- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2009

MEXICO CITY (AP) - President Barack Obama wants Havana to make the next move to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, saying Thursday that he needs to see signs of changes on the island before he makes any more overtures.

President Raul Castro responded hours later that his government is willing to discuss any issue with Washington, as along as it’s a conversation between equals and Washington respects “the Cuban people’s right to self-determination.”

“We have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything _ human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything,” Castro told leaders at a summit in Venezuela.

Earlier this week, Obama lifted restrictions on visits and money sent to Cuba by Americans with families there _ steps he called “extraordinarily significant” for those families, and a show of good faith by the U.S. government that it wants to recast the relationship.

But he reiterated that the U.S. won’t unilaterally end its trade embargo against Cuba, even though the policy is widely seen as a failure that has complicated U.S. relations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Obama said a relationship frozen for 50 years “won’t thaw overnight,” and that Cuba can show it wants to move forward by lifting its own restrictions on Cubans’ ability to travel and to voice their opinions.

He spoke at a news conference after meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who called the U.S. embargo a failed strategy. Asked what the U.S. should do on Cuba to improve its image across Latin America, Calderon said “we do not believe that the embargo or the isolation of Cuba is a good measure for things to change.”

But Obama says Cuba needs to reciprocate to his overtures with actions “grounded in respect for human rights.”

Castro, who took over the presidency from his older brother Fidel last year, did not mention Obama’s comments specifically _ and stopped short of promising any action.

“We’re willing to sit down to talk as it should be done, whenever,” said Castro, who also condemned decades of efforts by Washington to undermine the Cuban government. “What’s going on is that now … whoever says anything, they immediately start (talking about) democracy, freedom, prisoners.”

Castro called for the release of five Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. after being convicted of espionage, and denounced U.S. funding for opponents of his government.

“I’m confirming it here today: If they want the freedom of those political prisoners, who include some confessed terrorists, Guatemalans and Salvadorans who were tried and sentenced … free our prisoners and we’ll send them to you with their families and whatever they want _ those so-called dissidents and patriots.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hosted Castro and other close allies for talks to show a united front in their first encounter with Obama on Friday at the Summit of the Americas.

Chavez called the U.S. position a “show of disrespect.”

“If that’s the way it is, what more can we expect from the rest? Nothing,” Chavez said. “I hope we’re wrong, but they’ll be the ones who will have to show us _ not with tales and speeches.”

Before Obama spoke, a similar message was sent by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Haiti.

“We stand ready to discuss with Cuba additional steps that could be taken,” she said. “But we do expect Cuba to reciprocate.”

“We would like to see Cuba open up its society, release political prisoners, open up to outside opinions and media, have the kind of society that we all know that would improve the opportunities for the Cuban people and for their nation,” she said.

Leaders of 34 nations are making their way to Trinidad and Tobago for the summit, a gathering of democracies where communist Cuba is not invited. That rankles several of the leaders _ not only close ally Chavez but also people like Haitian President Rene Preval, who has had warm relations with the Castro government and received medical treatment on the island.

He told reporters that he hopes Cuba will be able to attend the next summit, and that “Cuba is a friend of Haiti even though we have different political systems.”


Associated Press writers Jonathan M. Katz in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report from Cumana, Venezuela.

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