We'll talk with US but Cuba stays socialist, insists Raúl Castro
• Scorn for idea president will restore capitalism
• Speech comes amid grim economic news
Cuba's president, Raúl Castro, has offered to talk to the US and ease
half a century of enmity following olive branches from the Obama
Castro said he wanted to respond to Washington's effort to recast
diplomatic relations but insisted Cuba's communist system was solid and
would not be diluted. "We are ready to talk about everything but not to
negotiate our political and social system," he told the national
assembly on Saturday.
The 78-year-old leader, who formally succeeded his ailing brother Fidel
last year, made the announcement amid grim economic news which will curb
spending on health and education, twin pillars of the 50-year-old
The government warned of further austerity in the wake of hurricane
damage and a sputtering economy, a sharp contrast to glimmers of
Castro said there was a chance for negotiations now that the White House
had toned down Bush-era hostility towards Havana. "It's true there has
been a diminution of the aggression and anti-Cuban rhetoric on the part
of the administration."
Barack Obama has slightly eased the draconian US embargo against the
island, a policy from the Kennedy administration, and made symbolic
gestures such as stopping the electronic ticker from the US mission in
Havana which used to taunt Cuba's rulers with pro-democracy slogans.
Castro noted however that the embargo remained in effect and he rejected
comments by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, linking improved
relations with concessions from Havana.
"I have to say, with all due respect to Mrs Clinton … they didn't
elect me president to restore capitalism in Cuba, nor to hand over the
revolution. I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting
socialism, not destroy it," he said to a standing ovation.
He scorned those who believe the Cuban regime would crumble once he,
Fidel and other ageing figures from the revolution died, saying: "If
that's how they think, they are doomed to failure."
The US used to look forward to a so-called "poof moment" when the
communist system 90 miles off Florida collapsed upon Fidel Castro's
death. But when illness sidelined him three years ago his younger
brother seamlessly took over.
Raúl Castro has offered to talk to Washington before, but doing so in a
national assembly address gave the words added weight. There was no
immediate response from the state department.
"What we have here is an important and continuing effort by Raúl to
signal that discussions with the US are something he very much wants,"
said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs thinktank.
"Raúl is conducting himself like someone who wants to be accepted as a
serious discussion partner. He has been non-judgmental in his relations
with the US and on occasion been relatively warm. From the US viewpoint
Cuba has been on good behaviour."
The US is the only country in the hemisphere to not have diplomatic ties
with Havana, a position many critics consider anachronistic and
Obama has authorised the resumption of talks over migration and disaster
preparedness, low-level contacts which were severed during the Bush
European diplomats, and many US commentators, are impatient for bolder
moves and call Cuba a "low-hanging fruit" ripe for engagement in
contrast to recalcitrant regimes in Iran and North Korea. The
Cuban-American community which once lobbied for complete isolation of
the Castros is now split, with a new generation urging closer ties with
Havana, once a pariah, has returned to the international fold and
recently hosted leaders from Latin America, Asia, Russia and the EU.
But that diplomatic shine contrasts with a darkening economy which has
seen growth projections for this year slashed form 6% to 1.7%, with even
the lower figure considered optimistic.
Castro said the government cut its budget for the second time this year
to confront Cuba's worst financial crisis since the "special period" of
the 1990s when the end of Soviet Union subsidies left the population
close to starvation.
Tropical storms last year caused £6bn worth of damage and since then the
global slowdown has hit nickel exports and tourism revenues. "We've been
forced to renegotiate debts, payments and other commitments with foreign
entities," said the president.
Spending on education and health care, which are free and universal,
would be cut, he said, without much elaboration.
Many Cubans grumble that schools and hospitals have already degraded
because teachers and doctors prefer to hustle on the parallel economy
than work for monthly state salaries of just £12.
We'll talk with US but Cuba stays socialist, insists Raúl Castro | World
news | The Guardian (2 August 2009)