— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) March 20, 2016
As President Obama prepares to land in Cuba on Sunday evening, the first visit to Cuba by a U.S. president in nearly 90 years, Cubans are brimming with a combination of excitement and trepidation.
Cuba’s President Raul Castro, speaking at the United Nations for the first time, on Saturday hailed renewed diplomatic ties with the United States as “major progress” but slammed a U.S. trade embargo as the top obstacle to Cuba’s economic development.
Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama in December announced a detente following more than half a century of animosity between the former Cold War foes that culminated in the restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20.
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.
The embargo is “the main obstacle to our country’s economic development, while affecting other nations due to its extraterritorial scope, and hurting the interests of American citizens and companies,” Castro told a U.N. summit of world leaders on sustainable development.
“Such policy is rejected by 188 United Nations members states that demand its removal,” he said, referring to an annual U.N. General Assembly resolution that has condemned the U.S. embargo for more than two decades.
Cuba estimates the embargo has caused $121 billion in damage to its economy. It has launched a campaign for the General Assembly to again adopt the resolution calling for the embargo to be lifted.
U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Washington is considering abstaining from the U.N. vote on the resolution, provided the draft text is amended from previous years to tone down the criticism of the United States.
Adoption of the resolution has become an annual ritual. The United States and Israel have always voted against the declaration. While the General Assembly’s vote is nonbinding and symbolic, it has served to highlight U.S. isolation regarding Havana.
Castro is due to address the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly on Monday for the first time as president. Castro, 84, took over from his ailing brother, Fidel, provisionally in 2006 and definitively in 2008.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Sandra Maler)
Those receiving pardons will include inmates over age 60 or under 20 with no prior convictions and prisoners whose terms are nearing an end, as well as women, the infirm and foreigners whose countries will accept their repatriation.
The amnesty, ordered by the State Council, the Cuban government’s supreme body, will not extend to those serving time for homicide, rape, drug trafficking and other serious offenses in Cuba such as “cattle rustling,” according to Granma.
The government issued similar amnesties prior to previous papal visits. Nearly 3,000 inmates received pardons before Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in 2012, and Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998 prompted the release of several hundred others.
Francis will arrive in Havana on Sept. 19, and Cuban dissident groups have urged the pontiff to intervene with the Castro government to secure the release of jailed activists.
Amanda Duran, a member of the island’s illegal-but-tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Conciliation, said the group was trying to determine whether any of the 71 inmates on its list of political prisoners would be eligible for the amnesty.
“The phone lines are very congested right now,” she said.
The Vatican has not confirmed whether the pope will meet with Castro opponents during his four-day, three-city tour of the island before arriving Sept. 22 in the United States.
The timing of the Cuban government announcement is notable, as U.S. and Cuban diplomats commence bilateral talks Friday in Havana that mark their first formal meetings since the two nations reopened embassies.
A statement issued by the State Department said U.S. negotiators would meet with Cuban officials “to discuss next steps in the normalization process and schedule dates for future discussions on shared priorities.” The statement said the U.S. delegation did not plan to enter into “extensive discussions” in Friday’s talks.