Cuba’s communist regime marked 59 years Thursday since the launch of the revolution that brought it to power, using the occasion to offer to hold talks with its longtime foe, the United States.
President Raul Castro, during impromptu remarks at the close of the celebrations, also denounced opposition groups he compared to Libyan and Syrian rebels in the “Arab Spring.” However, the president made no mention of the controversial death on Sunday of one of Cuba’s most famous dissidents, Oswaldo Paya, at festivities held at Guantanamo, just a few miles from the American naval base. In his remarks, Mr Castro offered to meet with US leaders to discuss any issues they have with his government or country.
“Any day they want it, we will sit with them at a negotiating table,” the Cuban president proclaimed, clad in military uniform. But he insisted the conversation would go both ways: “Equal to equal, we will also discuss subjects concerning the United States.”
The United States has maintained a five-decade economic embargo on Cuba.
State Department Assistant Secretary Mike Hammer said that while the United States was willing to talk with Cuba, the Communist authorities first had to ensure rights for their people. “This administration has repeatedly stated that the US government is open to forging a new relationship with Cuba, but Castro’s government must begin by allowing the Cuban people to exercise their human rights and determine their future,” Hammer told a press conference.
He also hit out at the “despicable” arrests of dissidents during Paya’s funeral. “Our message is very clear to the Castro government… that they need to begin to allow the political freedoms that the Cuban people demands,” Mr Hammer added. Washington has demanded a “full and transparent investigation” of Paya’s death, which Cuban authorities say was a car accident.
Paya, an engineer and fervent Roman Catholic, was one of the first dissidents against the Castro regime to seek wholesale political and economic change. He won the European parliament’s Sakharov prize for human rights in 2002. Cuban authorities say the 60-year-old died when his rental car went off the road and hit a tree. Another Cuban dissident in the car was also killed, but the vehicle’s two other occupants – political activists from Spain and Sweden – received only minor injuries. The two Europeans are being held and have not made any public statement about the accident.
Castro meanwhile also denounced what he said were small groups of dissidents who want to “recreate in Cuba what happened in Libya and Syria.” July 26 is the anniversary of the 1953 attacks that Fidel Castro and his supporters mounted against two military barracks. Although these first attacks were unsuccessful, they are considered the beginning of the armed struggle that ultimately led to Fidel Castro’s seizure of power on January 1, 1959. His brother took over as head of state in 2006.