Cuba's revolutionary leader and longtime president Fidel Castro has apparently broken his silence over the communist country's move to normalize diplomatic relations with the US, telling students that though he still doesn't trust the American government, "we will always defend cooperation and friendship with all of the world's people, among them our political adversaries."
The comments came in a letter purportedly written by Castro that was read out on Monday at the University of Havana on the 70th anniversary of his own matriculation at the school.
On December 17, the US and Cuba announced plans to normalize diplomatic ties and establish embassies in their respective capitals. Last week, representatives from the two countries met in Havana for highly symbolic talks, the highest level discussions in more than half a century.
Castro, who seized power in 1959, is now 88 and in recent years has suffered a series of health problems. In 2006, he ceded power to his younger brother Raul, who announced the December agreement on Cuban television.
'I don't trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts.'
Until the letter, also published by Cuba's communist party newspaper Granma, little was known of Fidel's involvement or opinion on an agreement with a country that for years tried to have him killed.
He vouched for the legitimacy of the decision, saying his brother Raul had properly consulted Cuba's National Assembly and the Communist Party about the agreement. While giving his tacit approval, Fidel added that he still hadn't personally spoken with anyone representing the American government.
"I don't trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts," he wrote.
Despite the detente, which loosened rules on travel to Cuba and saw the freeing of American aid worker Alan Gross and the release of three Cuban spies, President Obama was unable to entirely lift the American embargo on the country. Doing so would require Congressional approval.
"On the one hand Castro does authorize, or at least doesn't oppose the changes," Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, told VICE News. "On the other he's very cautious about this rapprochement. In many ways that's the spirit I gather from Cuba's diplomatic team during negotiations in Havana. They did things to move forward with the next steps, but at the same time they didn't want to make changes to their politics."
In the at-times philosophical letter, Castro touched on income inequality and recalled being influenced by Marx, Lenin, and Mao during his student years. If he were to go back to school today, he said, he would study science.
Castro was more pointed in his criticism of the US, and of Israel, whom he accused of assisting the "racist South African army" in its war against Angola in the 1970s. At the time, Castro sent more than 20,000 troops to fight in one of the Cold War's deadliest conflicts.
In December 2013, Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial service in Johannesburg, the first such post-revolution encounter between heads of state of the two countries. Noting the historic nature of the location, Fidel noted it was an odd place for such an event.
"I think left to himself, Fidel would continue with a much harder line," Peter Winn, professor of Latin American History at Tufts University, told VICE News. "If it had been him, not Raul, at Mandela's funeral, would he have talked to Obama? He suggests he might not have."
The December thaw in relations was welcomed across the Americas, even among leaders like Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro who have been at odds with the US.
"This was a thorn in the side of US relations with Latin America, it was the one issue that the entire region agreed on," Peter Hakim, president emeritus at the Inter-American Dialogue, told VICE News. "It gets rid of the last relic of the Cold War and is evidence that the US and Latin American may change mindsets.
"Certainly a country like Venezuela will have a hard time sustaining an anti-American rhetoric if Cuba is no longer part of that," he added.
President Obama's decision to go ahead with normalization has drawn criticism from small pockets in the US, including from Florida Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, both of Cuban descent. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry sent prior to the Havana talks last week, Menendez accused the Obama administration of not addressing American property and assets nationalized after Castro took power.
"The administration has not provided details about how it will hold the Castro regime to account for the more than $6 billion in outstanding claims by American citizens and businesses for properties confiscated by the Castros," wrote Menendez.
Winn says the question of expropriated American assets and nationalized companies — which prospered under American-dominated Cuban governments prior to 1959 — isn't likely to stall talks or hold as much water as it did in the past with the Cuban community in the US.
"It's very ancient history, more than 50 years ago," said Winn. "By 1962, it was virtually over in terms of US property remaining in Cuba."
Some of the American companies with claims in the country no longer exist or have been absorbed by larger ones. Many exiled Cubans who held similar, if smaller, hopes have since passed away. As for Cubans living in places like Florida, the yearning for homes their relatives lost half a century ago may not trump the desire to be allowed to travel and see loved ones, said Winn.
"There is a second and third generation of Cuban Americans," he said. "As opposed to their parents or grandparents who thought of themselves as exiles who would return one day, they aren't about to go back to Cuba and live there; they are Americans. They may want to recover the house in Havana, but that is not their major goal in life."
Duany, whose own father-in-law had homes seized by the Cuban government, says the money to be made opening business in Cuba, even for companies that previously had their assets seized, greatly outweighs anything that could be recouped. It's not even clear, says Duany, where Cuba could possibly find $6 billion.
"We've seen a lot of interest, everything from airline companies to credit card companies to money transfer businesses, in going back," said Duany.
At the time of Castro's victory, Cuba — only 90 miles from Florida — had for years been hugely dependent on trade with the US. In response, the US reverted to its old levers of influence, including the quota it maintained for imported sugar, the lifeblood of the Cuba's export economy. Those pressures failed, and in 1962 President Kennedy enforced a comprehensive trade embargo on the island.
For decades, Cuba relied on foreign aid, first from the Soviet Union, then later from Venezuela. Now, many observers believe that fear over falling oil prices and a wracked Venezuelan economy provided added impetus for the December agreement.
In April heads of state, including Obama and Raul Castro, will meet at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City. Though the question of the US embargo has not been fully addressed, the meeting, which in past years was dominated by questions about Cuba's treatment, may provide another chance for the two leaders to speak.
Earlier in January, Cuba announced the release of 53 political prisoners, fulfilling a promise made in December.
"All signs suggest there will be a major announcement, at least from the US side, in terms of what concessions they will make to move forward," said Duany. Among those, Duany predicts, could be the removal of Cuba from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
Looming behind the meeting will, as always, be Fidel Castro, the man reviled by many for a deplorable human rights record, but also long held up as talisman for anti-imperialism in the Americas.
Concluding his letter, Castro said "human dignity" should guide responses to "the serious dangers that threaten humanity."
"No country is excluded from such rights. I have fought with that spirit and will continue fighting until my last breath," wrote Castro.
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