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Raul Castro again says Cuba willing to talk with U.S.

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
updated 4:42 PM EDT, Thu July 26, 2012
"If they want to discuss the problems of democracy ... we will discuss them," Cuban President Raul Castro said Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The table is set" if Washington wants talks with Havana, Raul Castro says
  • President says he is willing to discuss democracy, freedom of speech and human rights
  • But he adds that the Cuban government has its own grievances
  • This is not the first time Castro has expressed a willingness to talk with the United States

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- On Cuba's main holiday honoring the island's revolution, President Raul Castro declared once again that his government is ready to enter into talks with the United States.

"The table is set. If they want to discuss the problems of democracy, as they say, freedom of speech, human rights, the things they have invented for years, we will discuss them," he said. But he added that the Cuban government has its own grievances.

The comments came on the 59th anniversary of the assault led by Fidel Castro on a military barracks that marked the beginning of the Cuban revolution.

This is not the first time Raul Castro has expressed a willingness to talk with Washington. In April 2009, for example, speaking at a summit of leftist Latin American leaders gathered in Venezuela, he said he was willing to discuss "everything, everything, everything" with the United States, even such sensitive topics as human rights, freedom of the press and political prisoners.

Cubans were given the day off from work Thursday, and the July 26 event has historically been reserved for important announcements. Castro's speech was broadcast several times on the island's state-controlled media.

His remarks appeared unscripted, as he made several off-the-cuff jokes and said he had not planned to give a speech.

Cuban First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura had already given the keynote address, in which he demanded that the United States return the naval base near the Cuban town of Guantanamo, where this year's celebrations are taking place

The United States maintains a five-decades-old trade embargo on Cuba, and any improvements in relations have been stalled by a number of issues, including the jailing of State Department contractor Alan Gross on charges of espionage in Cuba.

After Machado Ventura's speech, Raul Castro took the stage, he said, to thank the crowd. But he said he had made several speeches this week and would not be making formal remarks.

Then he dived into the strained U.S.-Cuba relations, saying he would prefer the two countries were adversaries only on the baseball field.

There was no olive branch, however, for the country's internal critics, who Cuba's state-run media lambaste as paid mercenaries working in the employ of foreign governments.

"Factions" within Cuba, Castro said, "are trying to lay the groundwork so that one day what happened in Libya will happen here, what they're trying to make happen in Syria."

On Sunday, leading Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya died in a car crash. The government has said the crash was the result of an accident, but members of Paya's family have said they believe he was intentionally targeted.

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