Friday, April 17, 2009

US, Cuba Trade Warmest Words in Last 50 Years

US, Cuba Trade Warmest Words in Last 50 Years


Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker in Cumana, Venezuela; Bert Wilkinson and Nestor Ikeda in

Port-of-Spain; and Anita Snow in Havana contributed to this report.


Filed by Jessica Gusman

04/17/09 06:45 PM


PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad - Trading their warmest words

in a half-century, the United States and Cuba pressed

ahead Friday with a dizzying series of gestures as

leaders of the Americas gathered for a summit. The

momentum was so great that the head of the Organization

of American States said he'll ask his group to invite

Cuba back after 47 years.


In a diplomatic exchange of the kind that normally

takes months or years, President Barack Obama this week

dropped restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba,

then challenged his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro to



Within hours, Castro responded with Cuba's most open

offer for talks since the Eisenhower administration,

saying he's ready to discuss "human rights, freedom of

the press, political prisoners _ everything." Cuban

officials have historically bristled at discussing

human rights or political prisoners, of whom they hold

about 200.


The United States fired back Friday, with Secretary of

State Hillary Rodham Clinton offering: "We welcome his

comments, the overture they represent and we are taking

a very serious look at how we intend to respond."


And OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said he

would ask the 34 member nations to invite Cuba back

into the fold. Analysts doubted Insulza _ known for his

political caution _ would have done so without a nod

from Washington.


"We're going step by step," Insulza said. He called on

the group to annul the 1962 resolution that suspended

Cuba because its "Marxist-Leninist" system was

incompatible with OAS principles. If two-thirds of

foreign ministers agree at a meeting in Honduras next

month, the communist government will be reinstated.


But while White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said U.S.

officials were struck by Castro's new openness to admit

change might be needed, he also said Cuba needed to

start making concrete moves toward freedom.


"They are certainly free to release political

prisoners. They're certainly free to stop skimming

money off the top of remittance payments. They're free

to institute greater freedom of the press," he said

aboard Air Force One as Obama flew into Trinidad.

Story continues below


And Castro didn't retreat from his criticism of U.S.

policy, recalling Thursday that the United States has

long tried to topple the government that he and his

brother Fidel have presided over for 50 years.


"That's the sad reality," he said.


Analysts also cautioned that the week's heady

developments do not necessarily mean peace is upon us.


"This is a thaw, but it's a thaw that's going to take

some time," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American

Dialogue in Washington. "I wouldn't look for any

dramatic breakthroughs. There's a lot of distrust."


Added Peter DeShazo of the Center for Strategic and

International Studies: "These are very preliminary

steps, but they are significant."


The U.S. severed all diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan.

3, 1961, just three months before exiles launched their

disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs.


The last significant effort toward talks were secret

negotiations between an aide to then-Secretary of State

Henry Kissinger and an emissary from the Cuban

Communist Party at a crowded coffee shop at New York's

La Guardia Airport on Jan. 11, 1975. Negotiators met in

New York hotels and private homes over several months,

but the move died when Castro sent troops into Angola.


This time, both Obama and Castro have signaled a

willingness to sit down face-to-face. Obama was

criticized during his campaign for saying he'd meet

with Castro without preconditions, and Castro said

during a November interview with actor-director Sean

Penn that he would meet with Obama, suggesting the U.S.

Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay as a venue.


Any possible talks are likely to include involvement of

senior Cuban diplomat Jorge Bolanos, head of the Cuban

Interests Section in Washington. Bolanos and Deputy

Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez greeted members of

the Congressional Black Caucus when they visited Havana

this month.


Although neither side has set conditions to simply

talk, Obama insists Cuba make another move before the

U.S. takes more action. Castro, meanwhile, demands the

U.S. trade embargo on the island be abolished,

something Obama has said will not happen without Cuban

moves toward democracy.


The U.S. could balk at Castro's offer to free about 200

political prisoners held on the island, along with

their relatives, and send them all to the United States

in exchange for five Cubans serving long sentences on

espionage charges. On the list are several people

convicted of violent acts, including two Salvadorans

sentenced to death for Havana hotel bombings that

killed an Italian tourist. Cuba currently has a

moratorium on the death penalty.


The number of political prisoners held on the island

has dropped by a third since Raul Castro assumed power

from his ailing elder brother in July 2006. The Cuban

Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation

then counted 316 prisoners but as of Jan. 30 documented

205 such inmates, including 12 since freed on medical parole.


Another stumbling block toward normalization is the

1996 Helms-Burton Act, which forbids U.S. officials

from restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba as

long as either Fidel or Raul Castro is in charge.




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