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HAVANA, (IPS) – Cuba’s acting president, Raúl Castro, made a frank assessment of the situation in his country Thursday, acknowledging difficulties and challenges faced by Cubans in their daily lives, ruling out the possibility of short-term solutions, and warning that it is essential to bolster production, especially of food.

Castro also reiterated his government’s willingness to hold talks with officials of the administration of whoever succeeds President George W. Bush in the U.S. elections in January, with a view to resolving the tensions that have kept the two countries apart for over four decades.

The new U.S. administration “will have to decide if it wants to keep up the absurd, illegal and failed policy against Cuba or whether it will accept the olive branch that we extended on the 50th anniversary of the Revolutionary Armed Forces,” said the interim leader, referring to statements he made in December.

Castro was speaking Thursday in Camaguey in east-central Cuba, on the 54th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, the first attempt by his brother Fidel Castro at overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista.

This year, 80-year-old Fidel was not present at the ceremony, as he is still convalescing from a string of intestinal surgeries. He temporarily handed over power to defence minister Raúl a year ago next Tuesday.

Raúl, 76, said his brother’s illness was a “major blow” but that Fidel “is engaged in increasingly intense and extremely valuable activity…although not even in the worst moments did he stop contributing his wisdom and experience in the face of every problem and key decision.” (Read more)