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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Obama showing hope for Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's foreign minister said on Friday U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's proposals for easing Washington's restrictions on the communist-run island would be a welcome initial move to improve ties with Havana.

His remarks were the Cuban government's first response to Obama's campaign pledge to ease limits on Cuban-Americans who travel to their homeland and send money to relatives living there and they raised hopes of an end to a long-running dispute across the Florida Straits.

"If he does this it would be a positive first step," Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez told reporters. "It would just be the start, because our people should be able to hope that at last their right to choose their own path will be respected."

Obama, who takes office on January 20, raised expectations of improved U.S.-Cuba ties by saying he was open to talks. But he has said he would keep the four-decade-old U.S. trade embargo as leverage to influence changes in the one-party state.

Cuba's former leader, Fidel Castro, said on Thursday his country could talk to Obama. It was Havana's latest signal to the incoming U.S. administration after his brother, President Raul Castro, said he could meet Obama in a neutral place.

Analysts expect some improvement in relations under Obama, such as increased cooperation on migration and anti-drug operations. But Cuba is unlikely to be a priority as Washington tackles wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the economic crisis.

"The notion of Obama sitting down and meeting with Raul Castro fresh into his presidency is hard for me to imagine," said Julia Sweig at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They have talked about having conditions met first and we don't know what those conditions are."

Obama has not commented on the overtures from the Castro brothers, two Cold War enemies of the United States, who have reached out to strengthen ties with the European Union, Russia and China.

Raul Castro officially took over the presidency in February from Fidel, who has not been seen in public since he fell ill in July 2006.

But attitudes are changing in the United States. American business groups want Obama to end the trade embargo and a survey released this week by a U.S. university found most Cuban-Americans in Florida now favor lifting restrictions, a shift in the bastion of anti-Castro sentiment.

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