MADRID, Spain – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Cuba was on the verge of a "major transition," and chided Spain on Friday for doing business with Fidel Castro while not working more to support dissidents in the communist island nation.
Rice's one-day visit here was meant to smooth over a three-year downturn in relations between Washington and the government Madrid, but the disagreement over Cuba has threatened to wash away any growing good will. At issue is Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos's decision to snub Cuban dissidents on a visit to Havana in April.
"I have made it very clear that I have real doubts about engagement with a regime that is antidemocratic. Spain has a different view on that," Rice said during a press conference alongside her Spanish counterpart, Miguel Angel Moratinos. "People who are struggling for a democracy need to know that they are supported."
Moratinos replied that he had explained his government's position that engagement was the best way to influence Castro's regime, and added that he hoped Rice would see the wisdom of the approach in time. As Moratinos continued to speak, she looked at the crowd of reporters and silently mouthed what appeared to be the phrase, "don't hold your breath."
Earlier Friday, Rice said Western democracies must do more to help democracy win the day in Cuba, especially considering the lingering health problems of the 80-year-old Castro.
"There is a major transition coming in Cuba, and I think democratic states have an obligation to act democratically," Rice said before touching down in Madrid.
Despite the harsh words, the two senior diplomats were all smiles at a joint press conference, calling each other "Condi" and "Miguel" and kissing each other on both cheeks. Both stressed that relations between the United States and Spain remain fundamentally positive.
Rice arrived just after midday, and met with Spanish King Juan Carlos before the talks and a working lunch with Moratinos. She was meeting with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the head of Spain's conservative opposition later Friday.
Zapatero has said he would also be glad to discuss Spain's position on Cuba with Rice, and hoped his explanation would assuage U.S. concerns.
"Countries and governments don't have to have equal visions on every aspect of international policy," Zapatero said earlier this week. "But it is positive that we are talking about it. Surely, when we talk our positions will become more understandable."
Zapatero's office has downplayed the significance of his meeting with Rice, saying it would be brief and characterizing it as a "courtesy call."
Rice's visit was the first by a senior U.S. official in three years, and she was candid when asked why it had been so long.
"There is no secret that we have had differences with Spain on a number of issues, but we have also had very good cooperation with Spain on a number of issues," she said aboard the plane.
Zapatero is one of the few European leaders not to be invited to the White House, and he did not help his chances when he openly supported John Kerry on the eve of the 2004 presidential elections.
In fact, relations between Zapatero and Washington have been frosty since even before he took power.
In 2003, as head of the Socialist Party then in opposition, Zapatero declined to join other Spanish officials in standing up when U.S. troops marched past a VIP stand during a parade to mark National Day. The next year, as prime minister, he did not even invite the Americans.
That followed Zapatero's decision to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, which he did a month after taking office in 2004. The war has been deeply unpopular here, particularly after a terror attack by Islamic militants that killed 191 people on Madrid commuter trains. The militants said they targeted Spain because of its participation in the peacekeeping force in Iraq.
Rice said Washington was most upset about how the withdrawal of Spanish troops was handled.
The U.S. objection was "not that they exited Iraq, but how they exited Iraq," she said.
On Iran, Rice reiterated that President Bush favored a diplomatic approach, but added: "it is a diplomatic course that is backed up by disincentives for Iran" if it continues its nuclear activities.