Americas

Raúl Castro makes his debut at the United Nations

Cuba's leader Raul Castro addresses the Sustainable Development Summit 2015, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015 at United Nations headquarters.
Cuba's leader Raul Castro addresses the Sustainable Development Summit 2015, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015 at United Nations headquarters. AP

The table is set for the United States and Cuba to make headlines as Cuban leader Raúl Castro addresses the 70th United Nations General Assembly on Monday — a few hours after President Barack Obama speaks.

Castro and Obama also plan a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. Tuesday.

This is the first General Assembly session since the United States and Cuba renewed diplomatic relations on July 20 after a break of more than 54 years, and Cuba has made it clear that a condemnation of the U.S. embargo, or blockade as it prefers to call it, is its priority.

At a gathering of world leaders at the U.N. on Saturday, Castro said the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between his country and the United States constitutes “major progress,” but the blockade against Cuba is the “main obstacle” to the island’s development and is “rejected by 188 U.N. member states.”

Castro, making his first appearance at the U.N. ever, has a jam-packed agenda. He spoke Saturday at a summit on the Post-2015 Development Agenda that adopted a sweeping agenda for global development, including the goal of eliminating poverty in 15 years, and that evening Castro met with former President Bill Clinton on the eve of the opening of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York.

The two discussed their shared commitment for continued positive developments in the hemisphere, including ongoing efforts to assist the people of Haiti, according to Clinton’s office.

Castro arrived in New York around noon Thursday because he wanted to be there for Pope Francis’ Friday morning U.N. address. During his time in New York, Castro also has meetings scheduled with heads of state and other dignitaries, and members of the Cuban diaspora.

His Saturday schedule included meetings with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who visited Cuba in April. He addressed the Global Leaders Meeting on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment on Sunday, saying that women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor and two-thirds of those who are illiterate.

On Friday, Castro met with several members of Congress who support the United States’ new policy toward Cuba and listened to the pope’s speech along with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s minister of international trade and foreign investment.

Castro’s first appearance at the U.N. is “very significant,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and one of the negotiators in secret talks that led to the diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Cuba. “It comes on the heels of the United States and Cuba establishing diplomatic relations earlier this summer, and on the heels of Pope Francis traveling to both Cuba and the United States.”

While Rhodes said the United States and Cuba would continue to have their differences, particularly on human rights, he said the presence of both the president and Castro at the U.N. General Assembly “is a symbol we’re in a new era.”

As is traditional, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will lead off the parade of nations giving addresses Monday during a high-level week at the General Assembly. She’ll be followed by Obama. Castro, bracketed by Chile and South Africa, will be the 20th to speak.

The bilateral meeting between Castro and Obama will be the second time they have talked in recent weeks. The two leaders spoke by telephone just before the pope’s Sept. 19-22 trip to Cuba, and they met face-to-face for the first time in April during the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

Not everyone is pleased with their budding relationship. “Meeting with and appeasing tyrants has become an obsession for the Obama administration but no amount of meetings will change the reality in Cuba: Raul Castro has not unclenched his fist and his regime continues to be as repressive today than it was when President Obama began this misguided normalization process,” South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Sunday.

Just as it has for decades, a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo is expected to come before the United Nations, putting the United States in a potentially awkward position since its rapprochement with Cuba. The resolution has already been circulated among U.N. members and is expected to come up for a vote on Oct. 27.

Rodríguez says this year the resolution will include two new paragraphs that acknowledge the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States and Obama’s efforts to lift the embargo but at the same time reflect continued worries about the economic sanctions that remain in place.

Since the Dec. 17 announcement that the two countries would work toward normalization, Obama has unveiled several new exceptions to the embargo that make trade and travel with the island easier.

But at a press conference earlier this month, Rodríguez said: “The reality is that until now the blockade doesn’t permit Cuba to export or import products freely to and from the United States, doesn’t permit the U.S. dollar to be used in international financial transactions with third countries, and doesn’t allow access to private credit in the United States nor in international financial institutions.”

Obama has said he wants to work with Congress to lift the embargo, but various laws and regulations, including the Helms-Burton Act, are the law of the land and prevent most trade and commerce with Cuba.

John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, declined to say last week what action the United States might take on the resolution, saying he didn’t want to get ahead of things and comment on a resolution before it was introduced. “The president and Secretary [John] Kerry have been very open and honest about the fact that they want to see the embargo lifted,” Kirby said.

Last year, for the 23rd year in a row, the General Assembly voted in favor of the resolution condemning the embargo. Only the United States and Israel voted against it and the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau abstained. This week, Castro plans ceremonies in New York for Cuba’s reestablishment of relations with both Palau and the Marshall Islands.

“One of the many things that was wrong with our Cuba policy is that it was succeeding only in isolating ourselves,” said Rhodes. “It was a major irritant in the hemisphere, but even more around the world.”

The AP has reported that the United States might itself abstain this year instead of voting against the resolution.

Ros-Lehtinen said she has spoken with Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and urged her to vote against the resolution. She called a possible abstention on the embargo vote “Obama’s latest concession, ” and said “it is truly shameful that instead of championing the cause of everyday Cubans, the White House has chosen to sell out to the dictatorship yet again.”

Earlier this month, Cuba released a document setting forth the economic damages it says have been caused by the embargo, which was phased in during the early 1960s.

Raúl Castro isn’t the first member of his family to speak before the international body. His brother Fidel Castro was the last Cuban leader to attend the annual General Assembly back in 2000. In recent years, Rodríguez has led Cuba’s U.N. efforts.

Fidel Castro holds the record for giving the longest timed U.N. speech — a marathon 269-minute attack on U.S. imperialism on Sept. 26, 1960. During that visit, Castro also made news by staying at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem and meeting with Malcolm X and other black leaders.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, it’s expected to be a fairly quiet General Assembly session except for a simmering Venezuelan-Guyanese border dispute.

The 15-member Caribbean community will not be taking any new initiatives during the General Assembly but will continue its position of advocating for small-island developing states. Issues include the need for concessional development financing for so-called middle income countries. Leaders have said that such financing is critical if they are to meet the sustainable development goals of the post-2015 agenda.

“We will need the assistance of the international community,” Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie said Friday at the opening of the Sustainable Development Summit.

Christie said that gross domestic product per capita “should not be the sole determinant for the question of the economic support that is to be given [to] our region, but that our vulnerability to economic and other exogenous shocks must also be taken into account.

“A single large investor can, when it collapses, throw an entire country out of whack, and similarly, one hurricane can wipe out the gross domestic product of an entire country threefold,” he added.

Christie said as nations implement the new agenda, leaders must continue to acknowledge that small-island developing states remain a special case for sustainable development in view of their unique and particular vulnerabilities, including the adverse effects of climate change.

The negative impact of climate change, they said, can already be seen in last month’s loss of lives and significant damages in Dominica when Tropical Storm Erika tore through.

“Clearly the weather patterns, the climatic conditions are changing, changing for the worse and impacting small islands like ours in a serious manner,” Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said after the deadly storm.

Among the anticipated addresses by Caribbean leaders is that of newly elected Guyana President David Granger. Guyanese Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge said Granger plans to appeal for help in the ongoing border dispute with neighboring Venezuela. It is claiming the Essequibo region, which is about 40 percent of Guyanese territory.

“We feel [Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] is prepared to do almost anything,” Greenidge told the Miami Herald.

Maduro, Granger, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki moon are expected to meet in New York Sunday evening to try to find a solution to the border dispute.

Guyanese officials say they have reliable reports that Venezuela is mobilizing military personnel and equipment along the country's western border. Guyanese citizens were warned to remain vigilant and to only use official points of entry if they must travel to Venezuela. “They have illegally positioned ships in the waterways,” Greenidge said. “We are monitoring.” In response, Guyana on Friday launched its own military exercises.

Miami Herald Caribbean Correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed to this story: @Jacquiecharles

Mimi Whitefield: @HeraldMimi

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