cuba-flag_web.jpgHAVANA (AP) — President Raul Castro has said his government is willing to mend fences with bitter Cold War foe the United States and sit down to discuss anything, as long as it is a conversation between equals.

At the end of a Revolution Day ceremony July 26 marking the 59th anniversary of a failed uprising against a military barracks, Castro grabbed the microphone for apparently impromptu remarks. He echoed previous statements that no topic is off-limits, including U.S. concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights on the island, as long as it is a conversation between equals.

“Any day they want, the table is set. This has already been said through diplomatic channels,” Castro said. “If they want to talk, we will talk.”

Washington would have to be prepared to hear Cuba's own complaints about the treatment of those issues in the United States and its European allies, he added.

Later in the day, Mike Hammer, assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. State Department, said that before there can be meaningful engagement, Cuba must institute democratic reforms, improve human rights and release Alan Gross, a Maryland native serving 15 years for bringing satellite and other communications equipment into Cuba illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program.

“Our message is very clear to the Castro government: They need to begin to allow for the political freedom of expression that the Cuban people demand, and we are prepared to discuss with them how this can be furthered,” Hammer said. Hammer highlighted the brief detention during the week of dozens of dissidents outside the funeral of prominent dissident Oswaldo Paya, who died in a car crash July 22, saying, “the authoritarian tendencies are very evident on each and every day in Cuba.”

The U.S. government and Amnesty International criticized Havana over the detentions.

Police herded more than 40 people onto buses, according to noted dissident hunger-striker Guillermo Farinas. They were taken to police stations and released within hours.

The short-term arrests “aim to produce physical and psychological wear and tear among the opposition,” said Farinas, who, like Paya, is a past winner of the European Union's Sakharov human rights prize.

Dissidents accused police of rough treatment but there were no reports of any serious injuries.