In U.N. speech, Raúl Castro calls for end of embargo

Cuban leader Raul Castro attends the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015.
Cuban leader Raul Castro attends the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. AP

Cuban leader Raúl Castro said Monday in his first address ever before the United Nations General Assembly that a resolution condemning the United States for the economic “blockade” against the island would continue to be raised at the international body until the embargo ceases to exist.

It was the first General Assembly held since the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations on July 20 after a gap of more than 54 years. Castro and President Barack Obama plans to meet on the sidelines of the U.N. Tuesday.

“Now a long and complex process begins toward normalization,” Castro said during his General Assembly address.

But he repeated previous declarations that true normalization can only be achieved if these conditions are met: lifting of the embargo — return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, the end of U.S.-sponsored Radio and TV Martí broadcasts and other “destabilizing” activities against Cuba by the U.S. government, and reparations for the Cuban people for damages caused by the embargo.

Castro noted that since the founding of the United Nations 70 years ago, “there have constantly been wars of aggression and interference in the internal affairs of the states, the ousting of sovereign governments by force, the so-called ‘soft coups’ and the recolonization of territories.”

He also endorsed the Iran nuclear deal as proof “that engagement and negotiations are the only effective tools to settle disputes” among nations. Castro said resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires Palestinians’ “inalienable right” to build a state within pre-1967 borders. And he ripped into stakeholders of the bloody Syrian conflict, demanding that the European Union “take full and immediate responsibility for the human crisis it helped to generate” by giving safe haven to refugees.

Castro received sustained applause as he took his seat, and several Latin American and African leaders gave him a standing ovation, in apparent approval of his narrative that Western colonialism and imperialism are at the roots of today’s conflicts.

During the morning session of the General Assembly, Obama also mentioned the new relationship between the United States and Cuba but he was more upbeat.

“For 50 years, the United States pursued a Cuba policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people,” he said. “We changed that.” He said in “this new era,” a country has to “be strong enough to acknowledge when what you’re doing is not working.”

While Obama said the United States continues to “have differences with the Cuban government’ and plans to “continue to stand up for human rights,” he said the best way to address such issues is “through diplomatic relations, and increased commerce, and people-to-people ties.”

During his address, Castro also mentioned concern for human rights violations, but he made it clear that Cuba has a different interpretation of human rights than the civil and political rights the United States insists should be respected on the island.

Castro mentioned the right to live in peace and the right to a better standard of living, citing the 795 million people who do not have enough to eat, the 781 million who are illiterate and the 17,000 children who die everyday from curable diseases at the same time annual military expenses worldwide amount to more than $1.7 trillion.

“Barely a fraction of that figure could resolve the most pressing problems afflicting humanity,” Castro said.

Although Obama didn’t indicate how the United States might vote on a U.N. resolution condemning the U.S. embargo that is expected to come up next month, he repeated his position that the embargo has outworn its usefulness. Last year, only two countries, the United States and Israel, voted against the resolution.

“As these contacts [with Cuba] yield progress, I’m confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore,” Obama said to applause. “Change won’t come overnight to Cuba, but I’m confident that openness, not coercion, will support the reforms and better the life the Cuban people deserve, just as I believe that Cuba will find its success if it pursues cooperation with other nations.”

In another Cuba development Monday, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced she will travel to Havana next Tuesday and Wednesday to meet with senior Cuban officials and discuss recent U.S. rule changes on trade, financial transactions and travel designed to make doing business with Cuba easier. She’s the second U.S. cabinet-level official to visit the island since resumption of diplomatic ties. Secretary of State John Kerry visited in August.

A number of leaders, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, mentioned their satisfaction at the new relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Rousseff, who by tradition was the first national leader to speak at Monday's plenary, said the region “welcomes the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, putting an end to a dispute derived from the Cold War.” She said she hoped the culmination of the process would be the end of the embargo.

Whitefield reported from Miami and Allam from the United Nations.