The Cuban national assembly announced on Friday that it would back the agreement of President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama to restore diplomatic ties that Washington severed more than 50 years ago.
“In the name of the Cuban people, we fully back the speech to the president of the council of state and of ministers, Army General Raul Castro Ruz, this past Dec. 17,” read Yolanda Ferrer, the president of the National Assembly’s International Relations Commission.
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Obama said he was ending what he called a rigid and outdated policy of isolating Cuba that had failed to achieve change on the island.
His administration’s policy shift includes an opening to more commerce in some areas, allowing use of U.S. credit and debit cards, increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cubans and allowing export of telecommunications devices and services.
His announcement also will not end the U.S. trade embargo that has been in force for more than 50 years. That is codified in legislation and needs congressional approval. Obama said he would seek that approval but will likely face a struggle.
The rapprochement announced on Wednesday included a prisoner swap — U.S. citizen Alan Gross and a Cuban who spied for the United States were freed in exchange for three Cuban agents who were serving time in U.S. prison.
The release of the three Cuban spies had a huge impact in Cuba and culminated a 16-year campaign to win the freedom of what Cuba referred to as five “anti-terrorist heroes,” who had been jailed in the United States for spying on anti-Castro exiles in Florida.
“After an intense battle of many years demanding justice, it is with great joy that we receive the news of Gerardo, Ramon and Antonio’s return to the motherland,” Ferrer continued.
The other two had already returned home in 2013 and 2014 upon serving their terms, and the freedom of the final three was met with jubilation.
U.S. officials say the five were caught red-handed but in Cuba they were seen as heroes who infiltrated extremist groups at a time when anti-Castro extremists were bombing hotels in Havana.
Raul Castro replaced brother in 2008
The National Assembly is expected to present the government’s economic plan for 2015. Since taking over from his ailing brother in 2008, Raul Castro has pushed through market-style economic reforms.
On the day he took office, he said Cubans should not use the embargo as an excuse for perennial shortages and economic hardship and he poked fun at the blame game in a 2010 appearance before parliament.
But his reforms are slow-moving and he has said the wider goal is to strengthen Cuban socialism, not weaken it.
So it was no surprise that even when announcing the U.S.-Cuban political breakthrough, Castro also reminded the world the sanctions were still in place.
Cuba estimates the sanctions have cost its economy about $117 billion U.S. in lost trade and extra costs, including nearly $4 billion in the most recent annual estimate.
Critics say Cuba exaggerates the costs and has found commercial workarounds with friendlier nations but the impact of not trading directly with the United States has been huge — from lost sales of sugar and other products to the inability to import cheap medicines.
On Friday, Economy Minister Marino Murillo said that the country had grown at 4 per cent, but was unable to raise salaries as much as it would like.
“The median salary will be 586 CUP ($24 U.S). I think we all desire that someday, that won’t be 586 CUP but rather 3,000 CUP ($125 U.S., but as long as we aren’t able to do it — and we can’t even with a 4 per cent growth — there’s no chance the median salary will surpass 585 CUP,” he said.
Obama can significantly weaken the U.S. sanctions with executive authority and the White House has said it hopes the U.S. Congress will formally lift the embargo before Obama leaves office in January 2017.
The National Assembly continues on Saturday and Raul Castro is expected to address the body.