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Cuba's closer ties with U.S. won't change socialist policies, Castro says

Cuban President Raul Castro has hailed a recent U.S. move to normalize bilateral relations, but stressed that Havana will not give up socialism.
The so-called "Cuban Five," from left to right - Gerardo Hernandez, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Rene Gonzalez and Ramon Labanino - wave to the crowd in front of a Cuban flag during a concert in Havana on Saturday. (Enrique De La Osa/Reuters)

Cuban President Raul Castro has hailed a recent U.S. move to normalize bilateral relations, but stressed that Havana will not give up socialism.

Speaking at the National Assembly in Havana on Saturday, Castro said he is open to discussing a wide range of issues with Washington, but added his country would not bow to pressure to change its core political principles.

“Just as we have never proposed to the United States to change its political system, we will demand respect for ours,” Castro said.

"There are profound differences between the governments of the United States and Cuba that include, among others, differing concepts about exercising national sovereignty, democracy, political models and international relations," the Cuban president said.

The thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations follows 18 months of talks between the longtime foes. In his speech to the assembly, Castro said change would come slowly.

"This will be a long and difficult struggle," he said.

'Cuban Five' hailed as heroes

In related business, members of parliament gave a standing ovation to three men convicted of spying in the United States who were released as part of an historic agreement to restore relations between the two long-hostile countries.

Since taking over from his ailing brother in 2008, Raul Castro has pushed through market-style economic reforms, but he told the National Assembly that Cuba would not abandon its socialist principles. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

The three men, known as the "Cuban Five" and long regarded as heroes in Cuba, appeared before the National Assembly along with family members.

Seated behind them in the audience was Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban who in 2000 was at the centre of a bitter custody battle between relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba.

Castro's address 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.

Castro expressed gratitude to President Barack Obama for a "just decision" to trade the men and remove an obstacle to renewed relations. Castro also confirmed he would attend the Summit of Americas in Panama in April, where he is expected to have further discussions with Obama.

Obama said the U.S. would ease sanctions imposed against Cuba in 1959 after Havana agreed to release American aid worker Alan Gross. However, only Congress has the authority to totally lift the embargo.

For now, both countries will work toward re-establishing embassies, and the U.S. will ease travel restrictions, making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and do business there.

While praising Obama's moves, the Cuban president made it clear that the agreement between the two countries only goes so far, reminding the audience of his call for the U.S. Congress to completely end the trade embargo.

The president closed his speech with "Viva Fidel!" in reference to his older brother, who has not been heard from since the historic development was announced, provoking speculation about his health and whereabouts.

"For us is not necessary for him to be physically present, he is still with us," said Ramon Labanino, one of the men released by the United States.

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