Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    US to Cuba: Relations Depend on Freedoms

    US to Cuba: Relations Depend on Freedoms
    July 30, 2012

    Washington is willing to talk with Havana about ensuring political
    rights of expression if Cuba wants to improve U.S. relations, the State
    Department said.

    The Obama administration is prepared to "forge a new relationship" with
    Cuba, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer said
    after Cuban President Raul Castro expressed an interest Thursday in
    starting a dialogue with Washington to mend fences.

    The Castro regime must make democratic reforms and improve human rights,
    Hammer said.

    "Our message is very clear to the Castro government," he said. "They
    need to begin to allow for the political freedom of expression that the
    Cuban people demand and we are prepared to discuss with them how this
    can be furthered."

    Cuba must also release U.S. government contractor Alan Gross of Potomac,
    Md., Hammer said.

    Gross, an international development expert, is serving 15 years in a
    Cuban prison after being convicted in March 2011 of crimes against the
    Cuban state. He was arrested in 2009 bringing satellite phones and
    computer equipment into Cuba while working for the U.S. Agency for
    International Development on a democracy-building project.

    Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., met with Castro
    in February in an unsuccessful bid to win Hammer's freedom.

    Gross' wife, Judy Gross, told Politico in March she considered her
    husband "a pawn from a failed policy between the two governments."

    The United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with Cuba
    since Jan. 3, 1961, and has maintained an embargo that makes it illegal
    for U.S. corporations to do business with the island nation, 90 miles
    south of Key West, Fla.

    Raul Castro made his mending-fences remarks at a ceremony in Guantanamo,
    Cuba, observing Cuba's National Day of Rebellion -- the anniversary of
    former President Fidel Castro's July 26, 1953, uprising against dictator
    Fulgencio Batista, which marked the beginning of the Cuban revolution.

    Raul Castro is Fidel Castro's younger brother.

    "The day they are ready, the table is set, and this has been
    communicated through the regular diplomatic channels," Raul Castro said
    in remarks broadcast several times over Cuba's state-controlled media
    and published by the official Cuban news agency Prensa Latina.

    "If they want to hold a discussion, we will do so, but on equal terms,
    because we are no one's subjects, nor a colony, nor anyone's puppets,"
    he said.

    Havana is ready to discuss "the problems of democracy, as they say,
    freedom of speech, human rights, the things they have invented for
    years," CNN quoted him as saying.

    Cuba would also voice its own grievances, he said as he called for
    "bilateral understanding," Prensa Latina said.

    "Hostility from Washington," mainly through the embargo, has led to
    Cuban economic losses of more than $975 billion, the news agency said.

    Castro said Cuba and the United States could be adversaries on the
    baseball diamond but not the geopolitical theater.

    "If they want confrontation, it must be in sports -- preferably baseball
    -- nothing else," he told a crowd gathered for the 59th anniversary

    "We must respect one another. You cannot run the world -- that's crazy,
    especially on the basis of repeated lies," Castro said.

    Castro's remarks were not the first time he expressed a willingness to
    talk with Washington.

    In April 2009 he said during a summit of leftist Latin American leaders
    in Venezuela he was willing to discuss "everything, everything,
    everything" with the United States, including human rights, freedom of
    the press and political prisoners.

    During his Thursday remarks -- which CNN said appeared impromptu --
    Castro said "small factions" within Cuba were "trying to lay the
    groundwork so that one day what happened in Libya will happen here, what
    they're trying to make happen in Syria."

    That will never happen in Cuba, he asserted.

    "Here we are, with our troops, as prepared as ever, just in case," he
    said, adding: "Once again I proclaim our interest in peace. We have no
    interest in harming anyone, but our people will defend themselves, and
    we all know what to do under any circumstance."

    Prominent Cuban political activist Oswaldo Paya Sardinas died Sunday in
    a car crash. Havana said the driver of Sardinas' car lost control of the
    vehicle and hit a tree, but Paya's children said the car had been
    deliberately run off of the road.

    Hammer in Washington pointed Thursday to Cuba's brief detention of
    dozens of dissidents outside Paya's funeral this week.

    "The authoritarian tendencies are very evident on each and every day in
    Cuba," he said.