Monday, August 20, 2007

Alarcon: Cuba 'ready to talk to US' - August 16

The president of the Cuban parliament has reiterated his country's desire to talk to the United States and "solve our differences".

Ricardo Alarcon, who has been named by some analysts as a potential successor to sick Cuban president Fidel Castro, said the Latin American nation wanted to meet with its American neighbours on a level-playing field.

He was speaking as reports emerged suggesting that the 81-year-old Cuban leader would not rule the country again after his intestinal surgery last year.

Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul has been handed presidential duties in his sibling's absence through illness and Mr Alarcon said he is more than capable of running the country.

Speaking on the Today programme, Mr Alarcon said he hoped Fidel Castro would "continue recovering", adding: "I look forward to him continue playing the leading role that he has been playing in our country."

But he added that Raul was leading the country at the moment "because he deserved that, because he earned that with his whole life and dedication to the country".

As to whether Raul had been "offering an olive branch" to Washington, Mr Alarcon said Cuba had always been willing to talk to the US.

"Raul was reiterating a position of principle," he said.

"We have always been in favour of negotiations and discussions to solve our differences, on one condition: that those negotiations have to take place on the basis of mutual respect for our respective independence and sovereignty."

Speaking on the same programme Victor Bulmer-Thomas, associate fellow and former director at the Chatham House thinktank, said he believes there is likely to be little political change if Raul does take over the leadership of Cuba.

"Things would change and yet one shouldn't expect an enormous amount initially," he said.

"I think this collective leadership represents different constituencies, but certainly on the issue of political reform I don't think any of them are going to be pushing for it.

"That's going to be something that will come from below or elsewhere."

Professor Bulmer-Thomas also felt that relations with the US would not begin to thaw until there was a new president in the White House.

"I think the problem with President Bush is two-fold," he said.

"First of all his administration has boxed itself in rather publicly by saying it makes no difference whether Raul or Fidel Castro leads the country.

"And secondly of course Florida is such a key state in any US presidential election, and the Cuban Americans have such a vital role in that election, that he would not want to do anything that could prejudice the chances of the Republican candidate."

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