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Clinton Welcomes 'Overture' From Cuban Leader

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday said U.S. policy toward Cuba's communist government, which features a decades-old economic blockade, has failed and she is calling Raul Castro's offer of talks with Washington on the full range issues between the two adversaries "a very welcome overture."

Clinton spoke at an Internet "town hall meeting" in the Dominican Republic capital, Santo Domingo, as she prepared to fly to Trinidad and Tobago to join U.S. President Barack Obama at the 34-nation Summit of the Americas.

Responding to an e-mailed question from a participant named Juan about U.S.-Cuban relations, Clinton said Mr. Obama has initiated the most significant policy changes toward Cuba in decades, and that the administration is looking for "more productive ways forward" in dealing with its Caribbean neighbor:

"You are familiar with President Obama's view that engagement is a useful tool to advance our national interests, and the goals of promoting human rights and democracy and prosperity and progress," she noted. "I don't know if Juan, who I hope is watching and listening to us, knew that earlier today Raul Castro made some comments which we have seen. We welcome his comments, the overture that they represent, and we're taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond," she added.

President Obama eased the U.S. embargo on Cuba earlier this week when he scrapped restrictions on travel by Cuban Americans to their homeland and cleared the way for U.S. telecommunications firms to operate in Cuba.

The President said Thursday it was up to Cuba to take the next step and Mr. Castro, in apparent response in Venezuela, said his government is ready for dialogue on every issue, including human rights, press freedom, and political prisoners - provided the talks occur on equal terms without challenging Cuba's sovereignty.

The Castro remarks were also welcomed, as "a positive step," by State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood, though he told reporters here Cuba should take some tangible steps in response to President Obama's actions earlier this week:

"We urge Cuba to release political prisoners, to allow for a free flow on information and for freedom of assembly. So we look for the Cuban government to reciprocate those steps that President Obama just announced," he said.

Spokesman Wood did not say the administration wants human rights gestures from Cuba as a condition for talks.

President Obama and the Secretary of State are expected to hear calls for U.S.-Cuban rapprochement from a number of countries attending the Summit of the Americas.

Clinton told her Santo Domingo audience the summit is an opportunity for the new administration to illustrate the "change in direction" it is pursuing and to address some of the major issues that confront the Hemisphere including drug trafficking, poverty and insecurity.