Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker in
Port-of-Spain; and Anita Snow in
Filed by Jessica Gusman
04/17/09 06:45 PM
in a half-century, the
ahead Friday with a dizzying series of gestures as
leaders of the
momentum was so great that the head of the Organization
of American States said he'll ask his group to invite
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
then challenged his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro to
Within hours, Castro responded with
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
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
into the fold. Analysts doubted Insulza _ known for his
political caution _ would have done so without a nod
"We're going step by step," Insulza said. He called on
the group to annul the 1962 resolution that suspended
incompatible with OAS principles. If two-thirds of
foreign ministers agree at a meeting in
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
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
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And Castro didn't retreat from his criticism of U.S.
policy, recalling Thursday that the
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
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."
3, 1961, just three months before exiles launched their
disastrous invasion of the
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
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
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
Any possible talks are likely to include involvement of
senior Cuban diplomat Jorge Bolanos, head of the Cuban
Interests Section in
Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez greeted members of
the Congressional Black Caucus when they visited
Although neither side has set conditions to simply
talk, Obama insists
something Obama has said will not happen without Cuban
moves toward democracy.
political prisoners held on the island, along with
their relatives, and send them all to the
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
killed an Italian tourist.
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
from restoring full diplomatic relations with
long as either Fidel or Raul Castro is in charge.