By Isaac Risco and Daniel Garcia Marco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES — Raul Castro could well consider his first visit to the United States after more than 50 years a diplomatic success. On Tuesday, the Cuban president completed an intensive, several-day tour of New York to seal the island’s return to the highest spheres of the UN, the world’s chief political forum.
Rather than become the target of criticisms over the situation of human rights in Cuba, as was quite often the Castro government over the past few decades internationally, the younger of the Castro brothers was one of the stars of the UN General Assembly’s first days – and not exclusively because of his second formal meeting with his US counterpart, Barack Obama, face-to-face dealings that are becoming increasingly common following the thaw announced by the two countries in December of 2014.
“The gathering took place in an atmosphere of respect and constructive exchange,” said the White House and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez of the encounter.
The 84-year-old Raul Castro had many eyes on him in New York. His visit marked a historical event: it was his first as president of Cuba and the second in his life, since his first trip in 1959, the year the Cuban revolution triumphed.
It was also the first time in 15 years that a Cuban head of state addressed the UN General Assembly (Fidel Castro had done so in 2000). Raul Castro’s older brother had left members with a vivid recollection of his first speech there in 1960, a four-and-a-half-hour address that became the longest ever pronounced by any world leader in the UN’s 70 years of history.
Raul Castro’s speech may well be forgotten some years down the line, but, on Monday, in a mere 15 minutes, the Cuban general clearly portrayed the abysmal differences that continue to separate the United States and Cuba, with a general critique of “imperialism” and the West for the current migratory crisis in Europe.
His remarks received more applause than those heard after Obama’s address that same morning – or by any European leader, for that matter. To be sure, the hall was not full and the ovation issued most loudly from the Latin American bloc – proof, if needed, that the government of Cuba has enjoyed regional support for quite some time now.
Raul Castro had something of a full agenda in New York. He again met with French President Francois Hollande, who visited Havana in May and became the first Western leader to travel to Cuba after the rapprochement with Washington was announced. Castro also had his picture taken next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Castro and Obama finally shook hands to pose before photographers on Tuesday. The Cuban leader, apparently accustomed to historical developments, essayed a smile upon seeing his US counterpart’s higher stature.
Over the weekend, Cuban television had broadcast images of Castro being received by former US President Bill Clinton in New York. The city’s mayor, Bill Blasio, also took some time to greet him personally.
Raul Castro “held meetings with world leaders and US personalities,” the Cuban press agency Prensa Latina summarized at the conclusion of his tour.
The younger of the Castros is seeing generally good days since taking office in 2006. After spending the greater part of his political life in the shadow of his brother, Raul Castro increasingly takes own a personality of his own as a statesman in the international arena.
Seen as the impeller of the island’s economic reforms over recent years, the former Cuban guerrilla leader also recently became the guardian in Colombia’s peace negotiations. Last week, Castro was a key figure in the meeting between his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos and FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño, also known as “Timochenko.”
“We’re closer to achieving peace now,” said the Cuban leader, who had previously encouraged the unprecedented handshake between Santos and “Timochenko,” taking both leaders by the arms. Only a day before, Castro had seen the Pope off in Cuba.
Most criticisms of the single-party system and lack of civil liberties in Cuba were perhaps heard during the Pope’s four-day visit to the island. These receded to the background in recent days, quite possibly the best Raul Castro has seen since his rise to power.