Despite U.S. promises of more trade and travel under renewed diplomatic relations with the communist island, leader Raúl Castro said Saturday that Cuba would continue to make economic changes at its own pace and would stick with its socialist model.
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.
The Cuban leader’s speech at the closing session of the National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, came three days after the surprise announcement by Cuba and the United States that they would be restoring diplomatic relations as soon as details are worked out in the coming year.
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.
“It shouldn’t be expected that by improving relations 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 the greatest risks,” said Castro.
“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,” he said.
“In the same way 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 President Barack 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.
Castro thanked Canada and Pope Francis for their roles in facilitating the high-level talks that led to the diplomatic break-through.
The day the two countries mutually announced they planned to renew relations — is “very important” for Cuba, Castro said, but “the essential thing is lifting the blockade,” the Cuban term for the embargo. And he said he hoped that Obama would continue to use his presidential prerogative to make inroads against it.
Castro once again emphasized he planned to maintain the slow, methodical pace of Cuba’s economic reforms. “It isn’t something we can do from one day to the next if we want success,” he said.
He acknowledged that Cuban salaries must increase, but said “first we have to increase wealth.” Increasing salaries too fast without an increase in production, he said, could introduce inflation.
Among those in the audience were the convicted spies known as the Cuban Five — René González, Fernando González, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino y Antonio Guerrero — whose continued detention figured so prominently in the negotiations between the United States and Cuba that led to the historic agreement.
The latter three were released from U.S. prisons Wednesday — the same day that USAID subcontractor Alan Gross and a CIA agent believed to be Rolando Sarraff were freed from Cuban jails. The first two had already returned to Cuba after serving lengthy prison terms.
The Cuban Five, known in Cuba as the Five Heroes, were spies who 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 shoot-down by Cuban military jets of two planes from South Florida and the deaths of four U.S. citizens who were aboard.
Castro also said he appreciated the invitation from Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela to attend the April Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama City. Cuba has been excluded from the gathering in the past. This time, he said, “I confirm we will take part.”
Latin American and Caribbean nations had pushed for Cuba’s inclusion and Castro said he was grateful for their “unanimous consensus” and solidarity.
In off-the-cuff remarks after the National Assembly session had officially closed, Castro noted the presence of Elián González in the audience. González, the rafter boy who arrived in the United States after his mother died at sea, was caught up in a custody tug-of-war between his Miami relatives and his father in Cuba. His father won and federal agents seized the boy 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 where he is studying engineering.
Castro said he was very proud of him and asked him to come forward and stand with the Cuban Five. “A hug to all,” said Castro.
And as the Cuban leader left the rostrum, he pumped his fist and said, “Viva Fidel!”