US official fires back at Cuba, says Washington has every right to comment on island matters

By Paul Haven, AP
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cuban and US officials keep up tit-for-tat spat

HAVANA — It seems Washington and Havana can find a way to argue about almost anything.

Cuban and U.S. officials kept up tit-for-tat recriminations over a comment by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley — who on Monday had mostly positive things to say about Cuba’s recent release of an ailing political prisoner.

Crowley welcomed as a “positive development” the release of Ariel Sigler, a wheelchair-bound prisoner who was serving a 25-year sentence for treason, and said the U.S. hoped it would lead to freedom for more prisoners of conscience.

That did not sit well with Cuban officials, who late Tuesday issued a stinging response in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

“Cuba doesn’t recognize any authority by the State Department or its spokesman to pass judgments on internal matters,” said Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North American affairs office. “Moreover, the United States doesn’t have moral authority to give lessons to anyone.”

She highlighted the existence of what she termed an illegal prison for terror suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay and said the U.S. has committed torture. She also brought up the case of “The Cuban Five:” five Cuban agents convicted of spying and sentenced to long jail terms in the United States.

Cuba maintains the men are political prisoners and were only keeping watch on anti-Castro groups that it accuses of a number of violent acts, including a 1990s hotel bombing campaign in Havana.

Crowley responded on Wednesday, saying the United States can comment on events in Cuba as it sees fit.

“We have, we feel, a right and responsibility to express our human rights concerns about any country in the world, including Cuba,” he said. “We are encouraged by the release of Ariel Sigler.”

Crowley said that the United States will continue to engage the Cuban government, but that relations will only improve once Cuba’s communist leaders accept political and social changes.

“It is clear that to the extent that Cuba desires a more normal relationship with the United States, that will depend on steps that Cuba takes to open up its society, to respect the human rights and freedoms of their own people,” he said. “As Cuba takes these kinds of steps, we will respond appropriately.”

He added: “We will continue and not hesitate to comment about the human rights situation in Cuba and elsewhere.”

Also this week, Cuba issued a statement expressing outrage at another U.S. government pronouncement: the island’s inclusion on a State Department list of countries deemed not to be doing enough to fight human trafficking.

Sigler was released following talks between the government and Roman Catholic officials. Twelve other political prisoners were transferred to jails closer to home. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on Wednesday said dialogue with the church over the dissidents would continue.

The United States and Cuba are due to hold regularly scheduled migration talks in Washington on Friday, and Vidal Ferreiro is part of the delegation. The two sides have also met recently to discuss the oil spill in the Gulf.

Eds: Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

will not be displayed