The U.S. government on Thursday reaffirmed its willingness to "forge a new relationship" with Cuba, but it insisted that the Raul Castro regime must take various measures to clear the way for that to occur including releasing U.S. contractor Alan Gross.

"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," Mike Hammer, assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. State Department, said.

Pointing to the brief detention of dozens of dissidents at this week's funeral of prominent opposition figure Oswaldo Paya, he said that "the authoritarian tendencies are very evident on each and every day in Cuba."

Hammer also reiterated the demand the Cuba release Gross, now serving a 15-year sentence for illegally bringing communications gear into the Communist-ruled island as part of a U.S.-funded program.

Hammer made his remarks in response to the proposal made on Thursday by Raul Castro to begin a dialogue with the United States in which all issues would be on the table, including freedom of the press and human rights.

"I have already said this through the existing diplomatic channels. If they want to talk, we will talk," the Cuban president said at a Revolution Day event in the eastern province of Guantanamo.

He added, however, that Havana will accept only a dialogue of equals, as Cuba is neither a colony nor a satellite. 

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