HAVANA — Cuban President Raul Castro sent a blunt message to Washington Saturday as the White House works to reverse a half-century of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba: Don't expect detente to do away with the communist system.
Castro's speech to Cuba's National Assembly was a sharp counterpoint to the message U.S. President Barack Obama gave in his year-end news conference the day before. Obama reiterated that by engaging directly with the Cuban people, Americans are more likely to encourage reform in Cuba's one-party system and centrally planned economy.
"We must not expect that in order for relations with the United States to improve, Cuba will abandon the ideas that it has struggled for," Castro said.
Also appearing before parliament, shaking their fists in victory, were three convicted spies just released from long U.S. prison terms. The last imprisoned members of the "Cuban Five" spy ring were freed this week in a sweeping deal that included American contractor Alan Gross and a Cuban who had spied for the U.S., both released from their cells in Cuba as a first step toward the restoration of full diplomatic ties and a loosening of U.S. trade and travel restrictions.
While the 83-year-old Castro spoke in Havana, other Cubans of his generation were leading a protest in Miami against plans to normalize relations with the Castro government. About 200 people showed up, most of them older Cuban exiles.
"The Cuban resistance will continue both on the island and in exile to do everything and continue the struggle until Cuba is truly free and democratic once again," said Sylvia Iriondo, an activist with Mothers Against Repression.
Castro also expressed gratitude to Obama during his speech, calling it a "just decision" to release the men who spied on anti-Castro exile groups in South Florida in the 1990s and have long been regarded as heroes in Cuba. Seated behind the three and their families was Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban rafter at the center of a bitter custody battle in 2000 between relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba.
The president closed with a shout of "Viva Fidel!" in reference to his older brother, who has not been seen nor heard from since the historic development was announced on Wednesday, provoking speculation about his health and whereabouts.
The executive orders Obama announced Wednesday can clear the way for limited exports to Cuba and freer travel by specific categories of Americans such as academics and artists, but he acknowledged his need to work with Congress to end the decades-old embargo Cuba blames for the dire condition of its infrastructure and economy.
Castro reminded Cubans that the embargo remains in place, particularly limits on international financial transactions that Cuba accuses of blocking its access to credit and international investment.
"An important step has been taken, but the essential thing remains, the end of the economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba, which has grown in recent years particularly in terms of financial transactions," he said.
Castro confirmed he would attend the Summit of Americas in Panama in April, where he is expected to have further discussions with Obama.
His address to the National Assembly follows surprise announcements by both presidents Wednesday that Cuba and the U.S. will reopen embassies and exchange ambassadors for the first time in more than 50 years.
The agreement included the exchange of the three prisoners, convicted in 2001, for a Cuban who had been imprisoned on the island for nearly 20 years for spying on behalf of the CIA. Gross had been held in Cuba for five years for illegally importing restricted communications equipment. Two members of the Cuban Five, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, already had been released by the U.S. As part of the exchange, Cuba also released 53 other prisoners.
Late Friday, Cuban state television showed four of the Cuban Five celebrating their reunion by singing together during a private party in Havana.
Their release angered the protesters in Miami. Two women held up a sign saying "Obama's message to Castro: Imprison Americans and get 3 spies and an embassy."
Most of the estimated 2 million Cubans living in the United States are in Florida. Thousands marched and more than 350 were arrested in 2000 after U.S. agents seized the young Gonzalez and returned him to Cuba to resolve an international custody dispute. When Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother in 2006, hundreds celebrated in the streets of Little Havana, and more recently, Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan led tens of thousands in support of Havana's Ladies in White dissidents.
By comparison, Wednesday's spontaneous protests and Saturday's planned demonstration in Miami's Jose Marti park were sparsely attended.
"I think there are a lot of people sitting on the sidelines, tired," said Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert and retired University of Miami professor.
Contributors include E. Eduardo Castillo and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Christine Armario and Rachel La Corte in Miami.
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