On Cuba, Obama and Castro Trade Signals About Talks

Pressure from Latin America for diplomatic moves to ease long-standing tensions.

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In a surprising and quick response to President Obama's policy moves, Cuban President Raúl Castro is offering to talk directly with the U.S. government about an array of sensitive subjects, including human rights, freedom of the press, and political prisoners.

Castro responded just hours after Obama, on a visit to Mexico City, said that it was up to Havana to take the next step after Washington's move to end restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to and sending money to relatives on the island. The Cuban leader, professing an open mind on talks as long as Cuba is treated as an equal with the right to self determination, said that "we have sent word to the U.S. government, in private and in public, that we are willing to discuss everything."

Raúl Castro, the brother of ailing former President Fidel Castro, has said in the past that he would be willing to meet with Obama for talks in a neutral place and would respond to U.S. actions to improve relations "gesture for gesture."

His rapid response to Obama, coming just before the start of a 34-nation Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, may be aimed at keeping up the pressure from other Latin American nations on Washington to ease its hard-line Cuban policy, which still includes an economic embargo and a ban on general travel.

Castro's move likely also reflects his smooth assumption of power, which was formalized in February 2008. He has been putting his own stamp on the Cuban power structure, including firing prominent cabinet members and ordering modest economic reforms.

Obama is personally popular with Cubans, who have high hopes that some improvement can be made in a tense, Cold War-style relationship that has endured for a half a century. Castro, who has seemed more attentive to popular sentiments and discontents than was his brother, may feel an incentive to show that he is willing to be responsive to Obama, at least in principle.

Obama this week called on Cuba to respond with steps "grounded in respect for human rights," a reference to Havana's jailing of political prisoners and lack of political freedoms. But U.S. officials have also said that a broader policy review on Cuba continues, opening the possibility of further steps to generate direct talks with the Communist government.