Castro will talk to US but -

Cuba’s President, Raul Castro, has offered to talk to the United States and ease half a century of enmity following olive branches held out by the Obama administration.

Castro said he wanted to respond to Washington’s effort to recast diplomatic relations, but insisted Cuba’s communist system was solid and would not be diluted. ‘We are ready to talk about everything but not to negotiate our political and social system,” he told the National Assembly on Saturday.

The 78-year-old leader, who formally succeeded his ailing brother Fidel last year, made the announcement amid grim economic news that will curb spending on health and education, twin pillars of the 50-year-old revolution.

The government warned of further austerity in the wake of hurricane damage and a sputtering economy.

Castro said there was a chance for negotiations now that the White House had toned down Bush-era hostility towards Havana. ‘It’s true there has been a diminution of the aggression and anti-Cuban rhetoric on the part of the administration.”

President Barack Obama has slightly eased the draconian US embargo against the island, a policy from the Kennedy administration, and made symbolic gestures such as stopping the electronic ticker from the US mission in Havana which used to taunt Cuba’s rulers with prodemocracy slogans.

Butu Castro noted that the embargo remained in effect and he rejected comments by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, linking improved relations with concessions from Havana. ‘With all due respect to Mrs Clinton — they didn’t elect me president to restore capitalism in Cuba, nor to hand over the revolution.

I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism, not destroy it,” he said, to a standing ovation. He scorned those who believed the Cuban regime would crumble once he, Fidel and other aging revolutionary figures died, saying: ‘If that’s how they think, they’re doomed to failure.”

The US used to look forward to a so-called ‘poof moment”, when the communist system 144km off Florida collapsed upon Fidel Castro’s death. But when illness sidelined him three years ago, his younger brother seamlessly took over.

Raul Castro has offered to talk to Washington before, but doing so in a National Assembly address gave the words added weight.

There was no immediate response from the US state department. ‘What we have here is an important and continuing effort by Raul to signal that discussions with the US are something he very much wants,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs think tank. —

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