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In long letter, Fidel Castro slams ‘syrupy’ Obama speech, says empire’s gifts not needed

AP/AFP-JIJI

Fidel Castro responded Monday to President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba with a long, bristling letter recounting the history of U.S. aggression against Cuba, writing that “we don’t need the empire to give us any presents.”

The 1,500-word letter in state media titled “Brother Obama” was Castro’s first response to the president’s three-day visit last week, in which the American president said he had come to bury the two countries’ history of Cold War hostility. Obama did not meet with the 89-year-old Fidel Castro on the trip but met several times with his 84-year-old brother, Raul Castro, the current Cuban president.

Obama’s visit was intended to build irreversible momentum behind his opening with Cuba and to convince the Cuban people and the Cuban government that a half-century of U.S. attempts to overthrow the communist government had ended, allowing Cuba to reform its economy and political system without the threat of U.S. interference.

Fidel Castro writes of Obama: “My modest suggestion is that he reflects and doesn’t try to develop theories about Cuban politics.”

Castro, who led Cuba for decades before handing power to his brother in 2008, was legendary for his hours-long, all-encompassing speeches. His letter reflects that style, presenting a sharp contrast with Obama’s tightly focused speech in Havana. Castro’s letter opens with descriptions of environmental abuse under the Spaniards and reviews the historical roles of Cuban independence heroes Jose Marti, Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez.

Castro then goes over crucial sections of Obama’s speech line by line, engaging in an ex-post-facto dialogue with the American president with pointed critiques of perceived slights and insults, including Obama’s failure to give credit to indigenous Cubans and Castro’s prohibition of racial segregation after coming to power in 1959.

Quoting Obama’s declaration that “it is time, now, for us to leave the past behind,” the man who shaped Cuba during the second half of the 20th century writes that “I imagine that any one of us ran the risk of having a heart attack on hearing these words from the President of the United States.”

Castro then returns to a review of a half-century of U.S. aggression against Cuba. Those events include the decades-long U.S. trade embargo against the island; the 1961 Bay of Pigs attack and the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner backed by exiles who took refuge in the U.S.

He ends with a dig at the Obama administration’s drive to increase business ties with Cuba. The Obama administration says re-establishing economic ties with the U.S. will be a boon for Cuba, whose centrally planned economy has struggled to escape from over-dependence on imports and a chronic shortage of hard currency.

The focus on U.S-Cuba business ties appears to have particularly rankled Castro, who nationalized U.S. companies after coming to power in 1959 and establishing the communist system into which his brother is now introducing gradual market-based reforms.

“No one should pretend that the people of this noble and selfless country will renounce its glory and its rights,” Fidel Castro wrote. “We are capable of producing the food and material wealth that we need with work and intelligence of our people.”

Obama, who met Raul but not Fidel Castro during his three-day visit last week, defied the regime’s warnings not to wade into Cuba’s internal affairs by meeting with anti-Castro dissidents and calling for democracy and greater freedoms.

“Voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections,” he said in a speech carried live on Cuba’s tightly controlled state television.

Castro lashed out at that speech, the symbolically charged centerpiece of the first visit by a U.S. president in 88 years.

“Obama gave a speech in which he used the most syrupy words,” he wrote, recounting the long history of acrimonious relations between Havana and Washington.

“Nobody has any illusion that the people of this noble and selfless country will surrender glory and rights and the spiritual wealth that has come through the development of education, science and culture,” said the retired revolutionary, who led Cuba for 47 years.

Fidel Castro remained out of sight during Obama’s visit, which aimed to cement the ongoing normalization of U.S.-Cuban ties, first announced in December 2014.

The decision to restore relations was spearheaded by the U.S .president and Raul Castro, who has proven to be far more reform-minded than his older brother.

Fidel Castro waited a month and a half to publicly give his blessing to the U.S.-Cuban rapprochement, and then embraced it only reluctantly.

Since announcing their landmark thaw, the United States and Cuba have reopened embassies in each other’s capitals and are slowly normalizing ties.

But several thorny issues remain unsettled, including the fate of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which Cuba wants back, and Washington’s more than five-decade-old embargo on the island, which Obama again called on Congress to lift.

Obama’s visit posed an awkward public relations problem for the Castro regime, juxtaposing a charismatic, 54-year-old leader known for the political brand of “change” with the octogenarian brothers who have ruled the island since 1959.

The fact that Obama is black and the Castros are white was not lost on Cubans, many of whom also have African roots, and Castro appeared to take particular umbrage both at the U.S. president’s relative youth and his description of both countries as New World nations “built in part by slaves.”

“He doesn’t mention that racial discrimination was erased by the Revolution, that retirement benefits and salaries for all Cubans were decreed before Mr Barack Obama was 10 years old,” he wrote.

Since stepping down, Fidel Castro has spent his time writing reflections that occasionally appear in the communist party press.

His last public appearance was in July 2015.