After shaking hands with President Barack Obama in a first face-to-face contact at the Summit of the Americas in Panama on Friday, Cuban President Raul Castro continued to surprise the public with his speech on Saturday, lacing it with humor and a generosity towards the American president if not the country itself.
Castro opened with a joke, saying that instead of the eight minutes each president had been given for their addresses, he would take 48, to make up fro the time he was owed for the previous six summits Cuba had been barred from attending.
Cuba had not taken part in these regional meetings for decades because it had been expelled from the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1962. Its participation now occurs in the context of the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic thaw announced on Dec. 17, when the two countries exchanged prisoners and agreed to start talks to re-establish relations.
“I appreciate the positive step taken toward removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” said Castro, before adding, “a list in which it should have never been included in the first place.”
Cuba was added to this list in 1982 by the Reagan Administration for advocating, “armed revolution as the only means for leftist forces to gain power in Latin America (…) and playing an important role in facilitating the movement of men and weapons into the region,” according to a CRS Report.
Castro went on to praise Obama’s efforts to lift the U.S. embargo against the island nation, and on behalf of Cuba, acknowledged Obama’s “brave decision to get involved in this fight with the Congress of his country to put an end to the embargo.”
“My apologies to President Obama, because none of this is his fault,” Castro said in reference to the hardships endured by the Cuban people for decades as a result of the policy of the United States. Instead, he blamed the 10 American presidents who had preceded Obama.
Castro also pointed out that Obama, like 77 percent of the Cuban population, had been born after the U.S. embargo came into effect in 1961, and hinted at the absurdity of maintaining a policy inherited from the past.
“President Obama is a decent man,” added Castro, “I have read part of his biography—the two books which have been published, though not entirely—and I think he is a humble man.”
He also noted that Obama had backtracked on calling Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security, despite declaring it so in March. “Venezuela is not, nor could it be, a threat to the national security of a superpower like the United States,” he noted.
Cuba and Venezuela have a tight alliance, with Havana sending doctors and other specialists—as well as training Venezuelan security forces—while Caracas supports the Castro regime with hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil yearly.
Obama issued an executive order on March 9 imposing sanctions on seven officials, which immediately drew howls of protest from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who said the order was an attempt to overthrow his government.
“President Barack Obama, representing the U.S. imperialist elite, has personally deiced to take on the task of defeating my government and intervening in Venezuela to control it,” he said at the time in a national television address.
But in an interview with the Spanish news wire EFE two days ago, Obama seemed to backtrack on that.
“We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government,” he told the news agency. “But we do remain very troubled by the Venezuelan government's efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents, including the arrest and prosecution of elected officials on political charges, and the continued erosion of human rights.”