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Castro to U.S.: respect our system of government

Cuba's President Raul Castro points to the press during the closing of the legislative session at the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Ramon Espinosa

There was a round of applause as Cuban president Raul Castro entered the National Assembly on Saturday, where he spoke of looking forward to normalizing relations with the United States.

But he warned that it does not mean any changes to Cuba’s system of government.

“We can’t pretend that by improving ties with the Unites States, Cuba will renounce the ideas for which it has fought for more than a century, for which its people have shed a lot of blood and have run the biggest of risks,” he said.

In a speech aired on state TV, the 83-year-old president thanked U.S. President Barack Obama for his decision to seek relations but warned ending the five-decade long trade embargo would not be easy.

“Our people must understand that with the announced conditions, this will be a long and difficult fight but the international community and U.S. society continue to demand the lifting of the blockade,” he said.

Castro also verified that he would be attending the Summit of the Americas in Panama this April, setting up his first meeting with President Obama since the bombshell announcement.

Obama announced on Wednesday that the U. S. would be taking steps to normalize its relationship with Cuba.

The move came after Cuba released American Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned for five years, as well as a swap for a U.S. intelligence asset held in Cuba and the freeing of three Cubans jailed in the U.S.

The White House extended its thanks to Canada for hosting the meetings that let to the United States and Cuba agreeing to re-establish diplomatic relations and open economic and travel ties.

U.S. officials say the first face-to-face talks with the Cubans took place in Canada in June of last year, with several other discussions taking place since then.

Harper also issued a statement congratulating the two countries on reaching their agreement, which marks a historic shift in U.S. policy after a half-century of enmity towards Cuba dating back to the Cold War.

With files from The Canadian Press