By WILL WEISSERT | Associated Press Writer
UNITED NATIONS – Cuba adopted a moderately conciliatory tone toward the U.S. at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, saying it is ready to normalize relations and, until then, wants to work with Washington to fight drug and people smuggling, protect the environment and cope with natural disasters.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Cuba had approached the American government with “a set of essential topics” it considers imperative to improving bilateral ties, including doing away with the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot” immigration policy, which allows nearly all Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay while deporting those captured on the ocean en route.
Cuba is also demanding the return of the territory occupied by the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, and an end to U.S. federal funding for anti-Castro government radio and television broadcasts beamed to the island from Florida, just 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
Rodriguez did not say what the government of President Raul Castro might offer in return for such concessions, but also urged Washington to unilaterally scrap its 47-year-old trade embargo and remove the communist-run island from the annual list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
Cuban and U.S. diplomats held one-day talks to discuss immigration in July, and aiming to restore direct mail service between both countries this month. Rodriguez called those negotiations “respectful and fruitful,” and said Havana wants both sides to meet again about increasing cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking and people smuggling, as well as better protecting the environment and responding to hurricanes and other natural disasters.
He said Cuba has sought full diplomatic relations with the U.S. for decades and repeated President Raul Castro’s offer to sit down with Barack Obama for a “respectful, arm’s length dialogue with the United States, without overshadowing our independence, sovereignty and self-determination.”
Rodriguez refrained from many of the anti-American barbs that have sometimes dominated Cuban addresses before the General Assembly and other world bodies, saying Obama has ensured “a period of extreme aggressiveness, unilateralism and arrogance in foreign policy (has) come to an end and the infamous legacy of the George W. Bush regime had been sunk in repudiation.”
But he also said the White House has done little so far to justify sky-high international optimism that came with Obama’s election.
Rodriguez said there still “is uncertainty about the real capacity on the part of the present authorities in Washington to get over the political and ideological trends that threatened the world under the previous administration,” adding that “neo-conservative forces” ailed with Bush “have very quickly regrouped and still have the reins of power and considerable influence.”
Rodriguez said that while U.S. trade sanctions can only be lifted by Congress, Obama could use executive orders to do away with a travel ban that prevents American tourists from coming to Cuba, and order the U.S. Treasury Department to unfreeze Cuban government funds held in banks since shortly after Fidel Castro and his bearded rebels took power in a guerrilla uprising on New Year’s Day 1959.
Obama has lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel or send money to the island, but U.S. officials have said they’d like to see Cuba embrace small economic or social reforms before taking further steps. The Cuban government has bristled at those suggestions.
Rodriguez blamed America’s “fascist right” for helping the Honduran military carry out the coup that toppled leftist President Manuel Zelaya in June and accused American interests of besmirching Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who sends more than 100,000 free barrels of oil a day Cuba, keeping the cash-strapped island’s weak economy afloat.
“The slanders and lies uttered against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are brutal,” Rodriguez said.