- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cuban President Raul Castro on Thursday said he is ready for talks with the United States, a day after the Obama administration slammed the communist government for detaining mourners at the funeral of a prominent Cuban dissident.

The State Department said President Obama is open to forging new relationship with Cuba if Mr. Castro adopts democratic reforms and respects human rights, but the Cuban-born chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said “only a fool” would trust Mr. Castro.

The Cuban president, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, said no topic — including democracy, human rights and press freedoms — would be off-limits as long as any talks are a conversation between equals.

“Any day they want, the table is set. This has already been said through diplomatic channels,” Mr. Castro said. “If they want to talk, we will talk.”

“We are nobody’s colony, nobody’s puppet,” he added.

Mr. Castro’s remarks were made at the end of a Revolution Day ceremony that marked the 59th anniversary of a failed uprising against a military barracks in 1953. Cuban rebels overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.

A State Department spokesman told The Washington Times that Mr. Obama has set preconditions to better relations with Cuba.

“In order for the United States to be fully engaged with Cuba, Cuba would need to allow Cubans to exercise freedom of expression and the right to petition their government,” said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.

“It would also include ending the mistreatment of peaceful civil society dissidents, the release of political prisoners, and the humanitarian release of American citizen Alan Gross,” he added. “Cuban authorities continue to deny the Cuban people their human rights, and the president has stated that he will continue to stand up for those rights and encourage others to do so as well.”

Mr. Gross, a resident of Maryland and a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested in 2009 and charged with spying. He is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lashed out at Mr. Castro’s offer of talks.

“Only a fool would think that Raul Castro wants to have talks that would benefit either the Cuban people or our great nation,” the Florida Republican said. “When the Castro brothers talk, they lie.”

On Wednesday, the White House blasted the Cuban government for detaining about 50 mourners at the funeral of Oswaldo Paya, a prominent dissident who died in a car crash under mysterious circumstances near the island’s eastern province of Granma on Sunday.

Witnesses to the crash said the driver of Mr. Paya’s car lost control and slammed into a tree. Mr. Paya’s family said the car was forced off the road.

The White House said that the detentions “provide a stark demonstration of the climate of repression in Cuba.” Some of the detainees were reportedly beaten.

On Thursday, Mr. Castro accused the opposition in his country of trying to topple the government.

“Some small factions are doing nothing less than trying to set the stage and hoping that one day what happened in Libya will happen here,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.



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