Cuba's Raul Castro to 'coincide' with Obama at U.N. this month

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 16, 2015 11:31 AM

By Daniel Trotta and Andrew Cawthorne

HAVANA (Reuters) - Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama, who are forging a new detente between Cuba and the United States, are bound to cross paths again at a U.N. gathering in New York this month but do not have a formal meeting set, Cuba said Wednesday.

Both leaders, who held a historic meeting at a regional summit in Panama in April, are to due to address the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28.

"Obviously, they will coincide at various events," Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told a news conference.

Castro would also listen to a Sept. 25 U.N. address by Pope Francis and address a development summit, he added. "I imagine there will be interactions between the two presidents, but I cannot say that a meeting is fixed," Rodriguez said.

Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro provisionally in 2006 and definitively in 2008, has made only one known previous trip to the United States, briefly visiting Houston shortly after the 1959 revolution.

Castro and Obama stunned the world last December by announcing detente following more than half a century of animosity between the former Cold War foes.

That led to the restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20, after a 54-year break.

The pair made further history by meeting in Panama in April. Their first encounter was a brief handshake at Nelson Mandela's funeral in December 2013.

Foreign minister Rodriguez reiterated Cuba's demand for U.S. economic sanctions to be lifted unilaterally as a prerequisite for further normalization of relations.

Although Obama has taken steps to ease trade and travel restrictions, only the U.S. Congress can lift the full embargo and that is not viewed as likely at the moment.

"Cuba appreciates and recognizes U.S. President Barack Obama's proposals towards lifting the blockade," Rodriguez said.

He estimated the total damage to the Caribbean island from decades of sanctions at $121 billion, calling that "an exorbitant figure for a small economy."

Cuba's cause against the embargo is likely to receive a boost from the pope's three-night stay in Cuba beginning on Saturday. Francis will travel from Cuba to the United States, where he will meet Obama and address Congress.

The Vatican has long opposed the embargo and Francis helped broker the rapprochement between the two countries.

"The pope has immense moral authority on the whole planet ... we are very grateful," Rodriguez said. "I am sure that his encouragement will be fundamental for both peoples."

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Nelson Acosta; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by David Gregorio and Frances Kerry)