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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Raul Castro says Cuba open to U.S. ties

HAVANA - Acting President Raul Castro said Cuba remains open to normalized relations with the United States, but warned the Bush administration in his first comments since assuming power that it will get nowhere with threats or pressure.

Raul Castro also said in Friday editions of the island's Communist Party newspaper that he had mobilized tens of thousands of troops in response to what he called aggressive U.S. acts, including stepped-up radio and television broadcasts to the island, and an $80 million plan to hasten the end of the Castros' rule.

"Some of the empire's war hawks thought that the moment had come to destroy the Revolution this past July 31," the day his brother Fidel Castro's illness was announced, Raul Castro said. "We could not rule out the risk of somebody going crazy, or even crazier, within the U.S. government."

State Department spokesman Tom Casey declined on Friday to respond specifically to Raul Castro's comment but said "I don't think we're particularly enamored of the first words we heard from 'Fidel Light.'"

For more than four decades, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been to undermine Cuba's one-party authoritarian rule through a trade embargo and restrictions on American travel to the Caribbean country. The neighboring countries have been without diplomatic relations since January 1961.

In recent years, the U.S. government has been working on a plan aimed at encouraging a transition to a Western-style democracy and free markets after Fidel Castro is gone, replacing a Communist system that tightly controls the economy and does not tolerate dissent.

The 75-year-old Cuban defense minister said his 80-year-old brother is undergoing a "satisfactory and gradual recovery" from intestinal surgery. The interview in Friday's newspaper seemed aimed at answering questions at home and abroad about Raul Castro's whereabouts and activities after his brother granted him provisional power.

"They should be very clear that it is not possible to achieve anything in Cuba with impositions and threats," the younger Castro said of the U.S. "On the contrary, we have always been disposed to normalize relations on an equal plane.

"What we do not accept is the arrogant and interventionist policy frequently assumed by the current administration of that country," he added.

Raul Castro's comments essentially restated his brother's longstanding position of favoring normalized diplomatic and trade ties with the United States.

In Washington, U.S. State Department characterized the temporary leadership hand over as a "dynastic succession," saying it is not acceptable to the United States and would be rejected by the Cuban people over the long run.

"What we want is a transition from the current dictatorship to a democratic government," Casey said. "And we certainly don't think that a transition from Fidel to Raul Castro fits that bill."

In another move likely to be seen as an aggression by Havana, U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte announced Friday he was creating a "mission manager" for Cuba and Venezuela to oversee the American spy community's efforts to collect and analyze intelligence on the two countries.

Castro took issue with a statement by President Bush a few days after his brother's illness was announced: that American officials "will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba."

And he criticized the U.S. "transition" plan for Cuba, which includes $80 million in government funds for opposition groups supporting democratic change in Cuba. "The bulk of it will be distributed in Miami, as is usually the case," he said.

Raul Castro has been at his brother's side since they launched the revolution with a 1953 attack against dictator Fulgencio Batista's military. As the No. 2 man in government, he's constitutionally designated to succeed his brother permanently should Fidel Castro die or be permanently incapacitated.

He said he cared about what the Cuban people think, and noted his appearance on state television on Sunday, his brother's 80th birthday, to greet visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the airport. He also appeared in photographs taken that afternoon with his brother and Chavez.

"As a point of fact, I am not used to making frequent appearances in public, except at times when it is required," the younger Castro said. "I have always been discreet, that is my way, and in passing I will clarify that I am thinking of continuing in that way."

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