WASHINGTON, July 27 (UPI) -- Washington is willing to talk with Havana about ensuring political rights of expression if Cuba wants to improve U.S. relations, the State Department said.
The Obama administration is prepared to "forge a new relationship" with Cuba, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer said after Cuban President Raul Castro expressed an interest Thursday in starting a dialogue with Washington to mend fences.
The Castro regime must make democratic reforms and improve human rights, Hammer said.
"Our message is very clear to the Castro government," he said. "They need to begin to allow for the political freedom of expression that the Cuban people demand and we are prepared to discuss with them how this can be furthered."
Cuba must also release U.S. government contractor Alan Gross of Potomac, Md., Hammer said.
Gross, an international development expert, is serving 15 years in a Cuban prison after being convicted in March 2011 of crimes against the Cuban state. He was arrested in 2009 bringing satellite phones and computer equipment into Cuba while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development on a democracy-building project.
Gross' wife, Judy Gross, told Politico in March she considered her husband "a pawn from a failed policy between the two governments."
The United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with Cuba since Jan. 3, 1961, and has maintained an embargo that makes it illegal for U.S. corporations to do business with the island nation, 90 miles south of Key West, Fla.
Raul Castro made his mending-fences remarks at a ceremony in Guantanamo, Cuba, observing Cuba's National Day of Rebellion -- the anniversary of former President Fidel Castro's July 26, 1953, uprising against dictator Fulgencio Batista, which marked the beginning of the Cuban revolution.
Raul Castro is Fidel Castro's younger brother.
"The day they are ready, the table is set, and this has been communicated through the regular diplomatic channels," Raul Castro said in remarks broadcast several times over Cuba's state-controlled media and published by the official Cuban news agency Prensa Latina.
"If they want to hold a discussion, we will do so, but on equal terms, because we are no one's subjects, nor a colony, nor anyone's puppets," he said.
Havana is ready to discuss "the problems of democracy, as they say, freedom of speech, human rights, the things they have invented for years," CNN quoted him as saying.
Cuba would also voice its own grievances, he said as he called for "bilateral understanding," Prensa Latina said.
"Hostility from Washington," mainly through the embargo, has led to Cuban economic losses of more than $975 billion, the news agency said.
Castro said Cuba and the United States could be adversaries on the baseball diamond but not the geopolitical theater.
"If they want confrontation, it must be in sports -- preferably baseball -- nothing else," he told a crowd gathered for the 59th anniversary commemoration.
"We must respect one another. You cannot run the world -- that's crazy, especially on the basis of repeated lies," Castro said.
Castro's remarks were not the first time he expressed a willingness to talk with Washington.
In April 2009 he said during a summit of leftist Latin American leaders in Venezuela he was willing to discuss "everything, everything, everything" with the United States, including human rights, freedom of the press and political prisoners.
During his Thursday remarks -- which CNN said appeared impromptu -- Castro said "small factions" within Cuba were "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."
That will never happen in Cuba, he asserted.
"Here we are, with our troops, as prepared as ever, just in case," he said, adding: "Once again I proclaim our interest in peace. We have no interest in harming anyone, but our people will defend themselves, and we all know what to do under any circumstance."
Prominent Cuban political activist Oswaldo Paya Sardinas died Sunday in a car crash. Havana said the driver of Sardinas' car lost control of the vehicle and hit a tree, but Paya's children said the car had been deliberately run off of the road.
Hammer in Washington pointed Thursday to Cuba's brief detention of dozens of dissidents outside Paya's funeral this week.
"The authoritarian tendencies are very evident on each and every day in Cuba," he said.