Cuba president Raul Castro poised for first official encounter with President Obama as US relations set to resume

Cuban leader says he will attend US-backed regional summit

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.


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.

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“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.