Castro hopes for meeting with Obama

Raul Castro, the Cuban leader, has told the actor Sean Penn that he would be willing to meet Barack Obama, the President-elect, after he assumes power in the United States, although he added the encounter should take place in a "neutral location", for instance Guantanamo Bay.

"We must meet and begin to solve our problems," President Castro said during a highly unusual interview given to Mr Penn in Havana a few weeks before Mr Obama was elected. His article will be published in the 15 December issue of The Nation magazine and is already available on its website.

The purpose of such a summit, Fidel Castro's younger brother added, should be primarily to end the trade restrictions that the US has imposed on the Caribbean island since its Marxist revolution, which will be marked by 50th anniversary celebrations in January.

Mr Penn, whose new film about Harvey Milk, the gay rights pioneer and city supervisor in San Francisco who was assassinated in 1978 opened in the US this week, travelled in October to Venezuela and Cuba accompanied by Christopher Hitchens, the US-based British columnist, and the historian Douglas Brinkley. Only Mr Penn was invited to meet Raul Castro, however.

Critics of American policy towards Cuba have taken heart from the election of Mr Obama, who said during his campaign that he would lift the new restrictions imposed by George Bush on exchanges with Cuba. He promised to allow Cuban-Americans to visit the island as often as they like and to send as much money as they wished to their families there.

The relationship could also be improved if Mr Obama honours his pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, set up after the 9/11 attacks to contain so-called "enemy combatants".

Whether those changes alone would be enough to trigger a sea-change in relations between Havana and Washington is hard to predict. Mr Obama has said he would not support ending broader economic sanctions on Cuba until it releases all of its political prisoners and improves political freedoms.

"The only reason for the blockade is to hurt us," the younger Castro told Penn, using the term the Communist leadership employs for the 50-year-old trade embargo. "Nothing can deter the revolution. Let Cubans come to visit with their families. Let Americans come to Cuba." After suggesting Guantanamo for a meeting with Mr Obama, the Cuban leader tartly added that maybe "we could send him home with the American flag that waves over Guantanamo Bay".

But there seemed little mistaking Mr Castro's interest in changes that could thaw the long freeze between Cuba and the US. "The American people are among our closest neighbours. We should respect each other. We have never held anything against the American people. Good relations would be mutually advantageous."

In a video on The Nation website, Penn said he was moved to make the trip to Venezuela and Cuba because of his frustration over the "demonisation" of the leaders of both countries by US politicians. However, he cites Joe Biden, the vice president-elect, among them.