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Castro rebuffs Chretien's call for reform

After bidding Chretien farewell, Castro held an impromptu news conference and vowed to defend socialism  

In this story:

April 28, 1998
Web posted at: 7:57 p.m. EDT (2357 GMT)

HAVANA (CNN) -- Vowing to defend "our socialism," Cuban President Fidel Castro on Tuesday rebuffed appeals by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien for political change and prisoner releases during his groundbreaking visit to the island nation.

Immediately after bidding Chretien farewell at Havana's international airport, Castro declared: "We are not going to change. We are going to continue defending our cause and our socialism."

Castro held an impromptu, hour-long news conference in which he made it clear he will not bend to pressure for reforms from foes such as the United States or friends such as Canada.

"The revolution is the biggest change there has been in history and we're not going to renounce that," Castro said when asked about Chretien's call for change during two lengthy meetings in Havana.

CNN's Susan Candiotti reports on Chretien's last day in Cuba
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Castro referred to his 1959 toppling of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and the island nation's ongoing socialist system.

The Cuban leader also blasted the United States for not following Canada's lead: "We've said we are willing to establish a dialogue whenever they want. ... Every time we speak a word on this subject, they come out with some arrogant remark."

'Constructive engagement'

Arriving in Cuba Sunday, Chretien stressed both Canada's independence from the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba and its belief that "constructive engagement" with the island's government will bring change.

"My view is that normalization would be very good for the people of Cuba. Basically, it's the people of Cuba who, at the end of the day, pay the price," said Chretien, who is the first Canadian official to visit Cuba since 1976.

Castro showed no signs of agreeing to the Canadian prime minister's appeal for the release of four political prisoners, leading dissidents who have been jailed without trial since last summer.

"We have not made any type of commitment in relation to that," Castro said. He added that Cuba is not the only nation with prisoners who have committed crimes against the state and said there are "hundreds" of such inmates in Europe.

Calls for end to U.S. embargo

Castro, eager to emphasize his and Chretien's joint opposition to U.S. sanctions, said the island's No. 1 priority is ending the economic embargo: "Let the blockade cease! The United States has no right to ask for or expect anything from us while they maintain the blockade."

"The U.S. should begin the changes before there can be change in Cuba," Castro said.

The Cuban leader described socialism as "the system of the future," adding that big differences between rich and poor make the current world situation unsustainable. However, he said Cuba is always "open to dialogue and good experiences" to perfect its socialist system.

Chretien suggested on Tuesday that the United States may have a long wait if it hopes the 71-year-old Cuban leader will soon lose power. "Will the Americans await the departure of Mr. Castro? I don't know. He appeared to me in top form physically," he said.

Without praising Cuba's policies, Chretien characterized Castro as "a very lively person, very outgoing, very strong in his views, and (with) a good sense of humor."

"People told me maybe he wasn't in good health, but people who watch him find him in better shape than he was maybe a few months ago," he said.

Castro was courteous to Chretien but notably more formal than during former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's 1976 visit. However, he praised the current premier, calling him "a man of peace, talent and experience" with a "constructive position" in international affairs.

Few tangible gains

Chretien made few tangible gains during the Cuba visit, but he said it was beneficial to sit down with Castro. He said his visit established some useful precedents, including the live broadcast on state-run television of his airport arrival speech, an open meeting Monday with the head of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church and talks on Tuesday with private aid groups.

Jean Chretien

Before leaving Tuesday, Chretien toured Havana's colonial center and met Canadian business people involved in the two countries' growing commercial ties.

The Canadian leader declined to meet with Cuba's leading human rights campaigner, Elizardo Sanchez. Instead, other members of his delegation were sent to that meeting.

Sanchez praised Canada's efforts on behalf of human rights.

"I don't expect spectacular changes in a short period of time. I hope there will be an impact that will be felt in the coming months," he said.

Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Reuters contributed to this report.


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