HAVANA - The United States and Cuba need time to reverse nearly half a century of bad blood, but both sides are more open to doing so than they have been in years, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said yesterday.
Richardson, a Democrat and former top U.S. diplomat who knows Fidel Castro personally, said he would like to facilitate dialogue between the communist government and the Cuban American exile community - but has no interest in being a special U.S. envoy tasked with repairing relations with Cuba.
"There is a good atmosphere. It's the best atmosphere I've seen for an improvement," Richardson said at a news conference at the historic Hotel Nacional during a four-day visit to Cuba. "What is needed is concrete steps from both sides. It's very important that we build more confidence in each other before we tackle the bold, divisive issues."
He did not see Fidel or his younger brother, President Raul Castro, but he met twice with Ricardo Alarcon, the head of Cuba's parliament, as well as officials in the Foreign Relations and Tourism Ministries before leaving the island yesterday.
Fidel Castro did send him a note containing a "positive message."
"He just basically said hello," said Richardson, who declined to comment further.
The governor said Washington and Havana were not ready to discuss lifting the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo or the release of political prisoners on the island.
Instead, he said, the U.S. government should better solidify President Obama's decision to ease restrictions on Cuban Americans who want to travel or send money to Cuba, and should allow more U.S. business leaders, athletes, artists, and academics to go to Cuba; let Cuban biotechnology products be sold on the U.S. market; and let Cubans attend U.S. scientific and business conferences.
Cuba, Richardson said, should let its citizens travel to the United States with fewer limits and fees, accept Washington's proposal to let diplomats from both countries travel more freely, and open a dialogue with Cuban Americans.
"I did raise these issues with Cuban officials," he said. "They are considering some steps."
The Obama White House has loosened restrictions on family travel and remittances but suggested it would like to see Cuba respond with small political or economic reforms - calls Havana has ignored.
Richardson said a wild card could be Cuban Americans. He said he "would be happy to broker" dialogue between the Havana and exiles in the United States.