Despite U.S. promises of more trade and travel under renewed diplomatic ties with the communist island, Cuban President Raúl Castro on Saturday vowed his country would continue to make economic changes at its own pace and wouldn’t waver from its socialist model.
“We shouldn’t expect that in order for relations to improve with the United States, Cuba is renouncing the ideas for which we have fought for more than a century and for which our people have spilled so much blood and run such great risks,” said Castro at the closing session of the National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament.
Listening in the audience as Castro made his nationally televised address were the five convicted spies whose U.S. detention figured so prominently in the negotiations that led to the historic agreement between the United States and Cuba. Also present: Elián González, who was at the center of a bitter custody battle in 2000 between his Miami relatives and his father in Cuba.
Castro’s speech came three days after the surprise announcement by Cuba and the U.S. that they would be restoring diplomatic relations as soon as details are worked out in the coming year.
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The United States broke off relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, just months after the Eisenhower administration imposed a partial trade embargo on Cuba that was later extended as hostilities between the two countries escalated.
While President Barack Obama’s mantra during his year-end White House news conference Friday was engagement as a way to bring about change in Cuba, Castro’s was mutual respect.
“We have always been willing to engage in respectful dialogue on equal terms to address any issues without a shadow over our independence and without renouncing a single one of our principles,” said Castro.
“In the same way that we’ve never proposed that the Unites States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours,” Castro said to sustained applause.
He noted that Obama has had to put up with “virulent criticism” from “forces opposed to the normalization of relations,” including Cuban-American legislators and anti-revolutionary groups.
Hours after he spoke in Havana, about 250 people, including dissidents from the island and some of those Cuban-American legislators, rallied in Miami’s José Martí Park to renounce Obama as a traitor who wasn’t thinking of the Cuban people when the deal was struck with Cuba.
Delfín González, Elian’s uncle, was among the protesters in Miami. “We feel betrayed once again,” he told the Nuevo Herald.
Jorge Luis García Pérez, a Cuban dissident known as Antúnez, said Obama has sent “a message to my companions in the resistance that this country has turned its back on us.”
Castro thanked Canada and Pope Francis for their roles in facilitating the high-level talks that led to the diplomatic breakthrough, which was announced Wednesday by Castro and Obama in nationally televised speeches.
The day is “very important” for Cuba, Castro said, but “the essential thing is lifting the blockade,” the Cuban term for the decades-old embargo. He said he hoped that Obama would continue to use his presidential prerogative to make inroads against it.
Responding to criticism that more market-oriented reforms are coming too slowly, Castro said that the speed of the reforms is something that is decided in Cuba. “It isn’t something we can do from one day to the next if we want success,” he said.
Cuba’s economy is expected to grow by only 1.3 percent in 2014, but Castro said the economy began to pick up in the second half of the year.
He acknowledged that Cuban salaries must increase, but said “first we have to increase wealth.” Raising salaries too fast without an increase in production, he said, could introduce inflation.
Castro also said he appreciated the invitation from Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela to attend the Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama City in April. “We will take part,” he said.
Until the recent détente, Washington had long fought against Cuba’s inclusion but Latin American and Caribbean nations had become insistent that Cuba sit at the table. Castro said he was grateful for their “unanimous consensus” and solidarity.
Castro also said the “Cuba people appreciate the just decision” of Obama to release Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero, the three members of the Cuban Five who were still in U.S. prisons, in exchange for a CIA agent believed to be Rolando Sarraff and the humanitarian release of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.
Two other spies, René González, and Fernando González, had already returned to Cuba after completing lengthy prison terms.
Known in Cuba as the Five Heroes, the spies infiltrated exile groups in South Florida to monitor potential terrorist threats against Cuba. They were convicted of a variety of charges related to the 1996 shootdown by Cuban military jets of two planes from South Florida and the deaths of four U.S. citizens who were aboard.
In off-the-cuff remarks after the National Assembly session had officially closed, Castro noted the presence of Elián González in the audience. González, who was found adrift at sea after his mother perished while making the crossing from Cuba, was caught up in an international custody tug-of-war between his Miami relatives and his Cuban father.
The Justice Department ordered the boy returned to his father. Federal agents seized him from his relatives’ Little Havana home and returned him to Cuba in June 2000.
“Remember the fight for Elián?” asked Castro. He noted that the young man had just turned 21 and was in his fourth year of university studying engineering.
Castro said he was very proud of him and asked him to come forward and stand with the Five Heroes. “A hug to all,” said Castro.
As Cuba prepares to celebrate the anniversary of the Jan. 1, 1959 triumph of the revolution, Castro added: “With a people like this, we should be able to reach the 570th year” of the revolution.
And as the Cuban leader left the rostrum, he pumped his fist and said, “Viva Fidel! Patria o Muerte (Homeland or Death)!”