Cuban President Raul Castro has hailed a recent US move to normalise bilateral relations but stressed Havana would not change its political system.
Mr Castro also warned Cuba faced a “long and difficult struggle” before the US removed its economic embargo.
He said he would attend next year’s Summit of Americas in Panama, where he could meet US President Barack Obama.
On Wednesday, Mr Obama announced a “new chapter” in US ties with the communist-run island.
The changes, he said, were the “most significant” in US policy towards Cuba in 50 years.
US-Cuba relations have remained frozen since the early 1960s, when the US broke off diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo after Cuba’s revolution.
It was a speech heavy on symbolism. Among others, in the audience were the reunited Cuban 5 – the group of Cuban intelligence officers freshly released from jail for spying in the US in exchange for the USAID contractor imprisoned in Cuba, Alan Gross. Elian Gonzalez – the young boy who was at the centre of an epic legal tussle between the US and Cuba during the Clinton administration and who is now a 21-year-old graduate of the military academy – was there, too.
Amid sustained applause, President Raul Castro tried to keep Cubans’ feet firmly on the ground. After all, Cuba’s key demand – the complete lifting of the US economic embargo – is still to be met.
Nevertheless he praised President Barack Obama for his bravery in trying to reverse decades of hostilities between the two countries and confirmed that he would attend the summit of the Americas in Panama in April. That potentially paves the way for a face-to-face meeting with the US president – an almost unimaginable prospect a year ago.
As President Castro drew parliament to a close for 2014, it is no exaggeration to say it will be remembered as one of the most historic years in the history of the Cuban Revolution.
Speaking in the National Assembly in Havana, President Castro said this week’s announcement by Mr Obama removed an “obstacle” in bilateral relations.
The Cuban leader said he was open to discussing a wide range of issues with Washington but stressed that Cuba would not give up its socialist principles: “In the same way that we have never demanded that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours.”
Mr Castro added that Cuba had to go through a “long and difficult struggle” before the decades-old US economic embargo would be lifted.
Announcing the normalisation of diplomatic and economic ties, President Obama said Washington’s approach towards Cuba was “outdated”.
As part of the deal, US contractor Alan Gross and an unnamed intelligence officer loyal to the US were released from Cuban prison in return for three Cubans held in the US.
Mr Obama also said he wanted to reopen the US embassy in Havana in the coming months.
The plans set out in a White House statement also include
- Reviewing the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism
- Easing a travel ban for US citizens
- Easing financial restrictions
- Increasing telecommunications links
- Efforts to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo
However, some critics in Congress later threatened to block normalising ties.
1959: Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army defeat the US-backed Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista
1960-1961: Cuba nationalises US businesses without compensation; US breaks off diplomatic relations and imposes a trade embargo in response
1961: Failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles
1962: Soviet Union deploys ballistic missiles to Cuba, prompting Cuban Missile Crisis
2001: Five Cubans, dubbed the Cuban Five, are jailed in Miami for spying
2008: Raul Castro becomes Cuban president
2009: US citizen Alan Gross detained in Cuba accused of spying
Dec 2013: US President Barack Obama and Raul Castro shake hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral – the first such public gesture since 1959
17 December 2014: Alan Gross is released by Cuba