October 19, 2021

Castro Thanks the U.S. in a Speech but Reaffirms Communist Rule in Cuba

Men watched at a barbershop in Havana as President Raúl Castro thanked President Obama for “a new chapter.”

Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

HAVANA — President Raúl Castro declared victory for the Cuban Revolution on Saturday in a wide-ranging speech, thanking President Obama for “a new chapter” while also reaffirming that restored relations with the United States did not mean the end of Communist rule in Cuba.

In a televised speech before Parliament and a group of favored guests — including Elián González, the center of a tug of war in 2000 between Cuban exiles and Havana, and the three men convicted of spying in the United States who were released as part of the historic agreement announced on Wednesday — Mr. Castro alternated between conciliatory and combative statements directed at the United States.

He stoked the flames of Cuban nationalism, declaring near the end of his statement, “We won the war.” But he also praised Mr. Obama for starting the biggest change in United States-Cuba policy in more than 50 years.

“The Cuban people are grateful,” he said, for Mr. Obama’s decision “to remove the obstacles to our relations.”

President Raul Castro in Havana on Saturday.

Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press

He added that all issues and disputes between Cuba and the United States would be on the table in coming discussions about re-establishing formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. But he offered no immediate concessions to demands for improvement in Cuba’s human rights record.

As he has done since he took over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, Mr. Castro prioritized economics. He acknowledged that Cuban state workers needed better salaries and said Cuba would accelerate economic changes in the coming year, including an end to its dual-currency system.

But he said the changes needed to be gradual to create a system of “prosperous and sustainable communism.”

Mr. Castro confirmed that he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas, which Mr. Obama is also set to attend. A White House official said Saturday that there were no current plans for the two presidents to meet there.

Mr. Castro, wearing a traditional white shirt called a guayabera and only occasionally gesturing for emphasis, referred repeatedly to Mr. Obama, praising him personally while also emphasizing that with the process of real diplomacy just beginning, “the only way to advance is with mutual respect.”

He insisted, as he and Fidel Castro have for years, that the United States not meddle in the sovereign affairs of the Cuban state.

Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a Cuban diplomat and educator, said Mr. Castro’s strong wording, in a speech that is an annual event and rallying point, seemed to be mostly directed at his Communist Party loyalists.

“It’s domestic politics,” Dr. Alzugaray said.

He noted that, just as Mr. Obama must contend with Cuban-American lawmakers who are angry about the deal, Mr. Castro faces opposition from more conservative party members who recall that Cuba’s previous stance, established in the 1960s, was to hold off resuming relations until the United States lifted its trade embargo completely.

“It’s Raúl reassuring certain people,” Dr. Alzugaray said, adding that in both Cuba and the United States, the embryonic era of friendliness would need to be protected from those resisting reconciliation of any kind. “Obama more than Raúl has initiated the first step, but other steps are needed.”

In Miami on Saturday, several hundred people gathered for a rally where President Obama was denounced as a traitor and a liar.

Surrounded by flapping Cuban flags in the hot afternoon sun in José Martí Park — named after a hero of Cuban independence, protesters excoriated the president in Spanish for his overture to the Cuban government, a move that they insist will only cement the Castros’ hold on power.

“The government in Cuba will still repress and throw into jail anyone who opposes the Castro regime,” said Blanca Gonzalez, 65, who moved to the United States 13 years ago. Her son Normando Hernandez spent seven years in a Cuban prison, she said, for “practicing independent journalism”; he was freed in 2011.

“All Obama is doing is throwing a lifeline to the Castros so that they can continue crushing the people of Cuba,” said Roberto Delgado Ramos,78, who said he was arrested twice, in 1960 and 1964, for “counterrevolutionary activities” and served a total of 12 years in prison. “The Castros are the ones who need to pay for the blood that they have spilled.”

Amy Chozick contributed reporting from Honolulu, and Nick Madigan from Miami.

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