Raul Castro said today he will attend an important regional summit – setting up the prospect of a formal meeting with Barack Obama as the thaw in a half-century of stand-off between the US and Cuba continues.
Speaking in the country’s parliament during an event that was a celebration of Cuba resistance to the US, the Cuban leader said Washington must respect the Communist regime.
But he also confirmed he would participate in the Washington-backed Summit of the Americas in Panama in April. By doing so he set up the prospect of his first meeting with Mr Obama since the two countries this week announced their deal to reestablish diplomatic ties.
“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 told Cuba’s National Assembly, according to Reuters.
He also said Cuba faces a “long and difficult struggle” before the US removed the 50-year-old economic embargo against the Caribbean island, in part because influential Cuban-American exiles would attempt to sabotage the process.
His speech to the parliament came as several figures considered heroes of Cuba’s resistance to the US were celebrated. The three Cuban intelligence operatives released this week as part of a prisoner exchange – members of the so-called Cuban Five – received a standing ovation as they appeared with family members at the assembly.
Seated behind them, according to reports, was Elian Gonzalez, the young man who in 2000 was the subject of a bitter custody battle in Miami.
The US announced this week it was changing a policy that dated back 54 years by normalising relations and establishing an embassy in Havana. Mr Obama said the policy of isolation had failed and that it was time to engage with Cuba.
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
1/19 Cuba timeline
July 1953: Fidel Castro begins a revolutionary campaign against the regime of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista
2/19 Cuba timeline
January 1959: Castro and Che Guevara enter Havana after a successful final offensive. Batista flees, and Castro becomes prime minister, ruling by decree
3/19 Cuba timeline
October 1960: Castro’s reforms sees hundreds of US businesses in Cuba nationalised and their owners not compensated. In December, US US breaks off diplomatic relations and imposes a trade embargo
4/19 Cuba timeline
April 1961: Cuban exiles launch the Bay of Pigs invasion with US backing
5/19 Cuba timeline
October 1962: A 13-day confrontation known as the Cuban missile crisis begins when Castro allows the USSR to deploy nuclear missiles on the island. Generally regarded as the closest the world has come to nuclear war
6/19 Cuba timeline
1962: US President John F Kennedy signs off a naval blockade
7/19 Cuba timeline
April 1980: A sharp downturn in the Cuban economy and Castro temporarily lifting restrictions sees around 125,000 people, many of them released convicts, flee to the US
8/19 Cuba timeline
February 1996: Cuba shoots down two US aircraft operated by Miami-based Cuban exiles, prompting the US to make its trade embargo permanent
9/19 Cuba timeline
June 2001: The case of the “Cuban Five” begins, as five spies in Miami are convicted of providing intelligence to the Havana government
10/19 Cuba timeline
Nov 2001: US sells $30m of food to the Cuban government to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle, which killed 22 people, the first food export between the countries for more than 40 years
11/19 Cuba timeline
Oct 2003: US President George W Bush announces fresh anti-communist measures, including tightening the travel embargo and creating a new government body, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
12/19 Cuba timeline
Aug 2006: President Bush seizes the opportunity of President Castro’s illness and a handover of powers to Raul Castro, urging Cubans to work towards democratic change
13/19 Cuba timeline
Feb 2008: Raul Castro officially takes over as president. Washington responds by saying its trade embargo will remain in force unless free and fair elections are held
14/19 Cuba timeline
Dec 2008: A poll by Florida International University suggests for the first time that a majority of Cuban-Americans living in Miami want an end to the embargo
15/19 Cuba timeline
April 2009: President Obama lifts restrictions on family travel to Cuba
16/19 Cuba timeline
Dec 2009: US aid worker Alan Gross is detained in Cuba on suspicion of spying for Washington
17/19 Cuba timeline
Nov 2010: American Ballet Theatre performs in Cuba for the first time in 50 years, the most high-profile in a series of cultural exchanges
18/19 Cuba timeline
Sep 2012: Cuba hints at its willingness to do a deal with Washington on the Gross case
19/19 Cuba timeline
December 2013: President Obama and Raul Castro shake hands at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Castro says in English: “Mr President, I am Castro.” It was hailed in Cuba as “the beginning of the end” for what were then described as “US aggressions”
A total of five prisoners were exchanged – the three Cuban spies, as well as American Alan Gross, who worked to develop internet access for dissidents, and Rolando Trujillo, a Cuban who spied for the US and was jailed in Havana in 1995.
US officials will visit Havana in January to start talks on normalisation, and Mr Obama has said his government will push Cuba on issues of human and political rights as they negotiate over the coming months.
Analysts have said the shift in Washington's stance will have regional implications. Mark Weisbrot of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, said he believed the US had become increasingly isolated in the region as a result of its stance towards Havana.
“Relations between Latin America and the Obama administration have been the worst probably of any US administration in decades," he said. "This will help, but new sanctions against Venezuela will also raise questions in the hemisphere about whether this is a change in direction or merely a giving up on a strategy that has failed for more than 50 years."
Mr Castro said on Saturday he was open to discussing a wide range of issues but that they should also talk about the US and said Cuba would not be giving up its socialist principles.
Barely 100 miles from Mr Castro spoke on Saturday, Cuban-American groups opposed to the the plan to normalise organised a small protest in Miami. The Associated Press said it was unclear how many protesters would attend the event and said that only a handful of protesters showed up in Little Havana on Wednesday when the president's announcement of a host of policy changes toward Cuba was made.