Cuba: No Improved Relations With U.S. Until Bush Leaves Office

Cuba is not interested in improving relations with the United States while President George W. Bush is in office and will wait for a change in U.S. leadership before extending an offer for dialogue, says Cuba's top diplomat in the United States.

As the island nation heads into weekend parliamentary elections that undoubtedly will extend the ailing Fidel Castro's grip on power, Havana is looking to America's elections in November to decide whether it wants to talk to Washington, said Jorge Alberto Bolanos Suarez, head of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington.

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, he said Cuban offers for dialogue with the United States made by Castro's brother, Raul, after he took day-to-day control of the government in 2006 were not intended for the Bush administration, which staunchly supports the nearly 46-year-old U.S. economic embargo of Cuba that was designed to choke off money to the Castro government in an effort to force a change in his communist system.

"When Raul spoke about it, he was not referring to the present administration," Bolanos said. "He was speaking clearly that after the U.S. elections, the new (U.S.) government should take a position with regard to Cuba.

"That is the time when Cuba would be ready to dialogue on the basis of mutual respect, without the arrogance that has always colored the U.S. position," he said in Spanish. "I'm not concerned what the current State Department says because we are waiting for what the next one has to say about Cuba."

Soon after emergency intestinal surgery forced Castro in July 2006 to cede power to a provisional government headed by his brother, Raul Castro reached out for dialogue with the U.S. government as long as Cuba's sovereignty was respected. He repeated the offer in December 2006 in a sign he had consolidated his leadership during Fidel's absence.

Many longtime Cuba watchers consider Raul the more pragmatic of the Castros, who would be likely to communicate better with Washington. At the time of the offers, the State Department brushed them off, saying Castro should open a dialogue with his people, end the one-party communist political system and hold free and fair elections.

Bolanos' comments on Thursday appeared to indicate that Havana is digging in its heels, refusing all but cursory contact with the United States until Bush, who has pursued strong anti-Castro policies during his seven years as president, is gone in January 2009.

Prospects for significant changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, no matter who takes over the White House from Bush, are uncertain.

Meanwhile, Bolanos said the 81-year-old Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public since he ceded power to Raul, might not be healthy enough to campaign for Sunday's elections in Cuba, but he is strong enough to work for the Cuban people.

"He has always won the seat, he has always gotten the highest (proportion) of votes of the population. I think this election will not be different," Bolanos said.

He disputed persistent U.S. charges that Cuban elections fall far short of democratic standards.

"There is nothing which Cuba does, nothing which Cuba says that is considered positive by the United States," Bolanos said. "This is not something strange or extraordinary that they don't consider it positive the way and means of how we elect our candidates."

Cubans are electing representatives to the country's legislature, or National Assembly, from a slate of candidates nominated earlier by municipal councils.

Cuba's government has not given details about Castro's illness or where he is being treated but has released photos and video every few months, meant to confirm he is on the mend.

The latest of those was released Wednesday when government television broadcast images of a frail but upbeat Castro meeting Brazil's visiting president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a day earlier.

The first video of Castro in three months showed him sitting and listening intently with a finger pressed to his forehead, then later standing and speaking, waving a finger for emphasis. "I have felt very good, very good," he says in the only audible comment in the 60 seconds of footage.

But in an essay published by state news media Wednesday, Castro said he is not yet healthy enough to address Cuba's people in person and cannot campaign. "I am not physically able to speak directly to the citizens of the municipality where I was nominated for our elections," he wrote.

Bolanos said he had spoken by telephone with Castro last month when he was in Havana, and "he was in good form."

"He is following medical advice and is abiding by them," the envoy said. "We are not as concerned about that as some are here in the United States. He is writing and working and handling the strategies of the government."