Castro hails US-Cuba thaw

Cuba’s President Raul Castro. Photo: Ramon Espinosa

Havana – Cuban President Raul Castro said on Saturday he was ready to discuss any topic with Washington after the historic bilateral rapprochement, but warned not to expect political change.

And while the leader of the Americas’ only communist nation hailed the agreement for removing of an “obstacle” in US-Cuba relations, he reiterated that “the most important thing, the end of the embargo” remained unresolved.

Castro spoke at the close of the twice-yearly meeting of the one-party National Assembly, which unanimously ratified the deal between Havana and Washington, in a session largely focused on the island’s historic renewal of ties with Washington.

“The Cuban people cheer this correct decision of US President Barack Obama. It represents the removal of an obstacle in relations between our countries,” he said.

“We reiterate our willingness for respectful and reciprocal dialogue concerning disagreements,” Castro said, adding that Cuba “accepted dialogue… on any topic about all things here but also in the United States.”

But he emphasised that his country was a “sovereign state” that would not bow to pressure to change its political or economic system.

“In the same way that we have never suggested the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours,” Castro said.

The United States and Cuba made the breakthrough in their Cold War standoff Wednesday, launching measures to ease a five-decade US trade embargo as well as a prisoner exchange. First official talks are scheduled for January.

Castro repeated Saturday his stance that “the most important thing, the end of the economic, trade, and financial embargo against Cuba, still needs to be resolved.”

However, most of the embargo is codified in US law, which can only be changed with congressional approval.

That will likely prove difficult, with a number of US lawmakers, led by Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, protesting Obama’s shift in Cuba policy.

For now, Castro said he counted on Obama using his executive powers to change the aspects of the embargo “for which the approval of Congress is not necessary.”

Similarly, he urged his US counterpart to review Cuba’s “unjustifiable” inclusion on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, an issue Obama has pledged to address.

Dissident groups in Cuba this week expressed regret that Obama did not wait for “a gesture from Havana on human rights” before announcing the agreement.

On Friday, Obama insisted he shared the concerns of Cuban dissidents and human rights activist “that this is still a regime that represses it people.”

“Through engagement, we have a better chance of bringing about change than we would have otherwise.”

But the US president said he didn’t “anticipate overnight changes.”

In Miami, mostly older Cuban exiles marched in protest at what they called the “treason” of Obama’s deal with Havana.

The assembly session was also attended by the “Cuban Five,” the group of intelligence agents jailed in the United States whose last three members were released in a prisoner exchange that paved the way for Wednesday’s landmark rapprochement deal.

The men are hailed as national heroes in Havana, which says they were not spying on Washington but rather on Cuban exile groups determined to attack the island.

The session was extended from Friday to finish discussions on the Cuban economy, the originally scheduled topic, reported state news agency AIN.

Despite Castro’s tentative steps toward reform since taking over from his older brother Fidel in 2006, the Cuban economy will achieve just 1.3 percent growth for 2014, the council of ministers said earlier this month. – Sapa-AFP

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