One day before the historic reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, former President Fidel Castro asserted in a newspaper column that the U.S. owes the island country "millions of dollars" as reparations for a decades-long embargo.
According to Agence France-Presse, Castro, who is celebrating his 89th birthday today, wrote: "Cuba is owed compensation equivalent to damages, which total many millions of dollars, as our country has stated with irrefutable arguments and data in all of its speeches at the United Nations."
The column did not mention U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Cuba for the embassy opening Friday.
President Obama announced on Dec. 17, 2014, his intentions to normalize diplomatic ties with Cuba, and the two countries have been working to thaw their 54-year estrangement. That same day, Cuba announced that it had freed jailed American contractor Alan Gross and the U.S. released three Cuban spies in exchange for an imprisoned U.S. intelligence asset. In late May, the U.S. removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then on July 20, the Cuban Embassy reopened in Washington.
The U.S. embargo, however, remains firmly in place.
NPR's Michele Kelemen interviewed Geoff Thale of the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, who has been working to improve relations with Cuba for 20 years. He says despite the progress, there is still a long way to go in fully reviving the relationship between the two nations.
"There are points where you saw you made progress, things slipped back, you pushed up the hill again and here we are today," Thale says. "I wouldn't say we've pushed over the top, because we still have an embargo, but we are in a totally different place."
Thale says the opening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba is a nice gesture — "kind of like popping the cork of the champagne right after the contract has been signed." But challenges remain, such as selling congressional Republicans on improved ties with Cuba. As NPR's Lauren Leatherby reported in July, Republicans including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee are all against restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, despite public opinion favoring normalization. But, Thale says, lawmakers are now more open to having discussion about Cuba.
"When we talked to Republican offices in the House a year ago, the response tended to be 'We don't necessarily have the hard-line view a decade ago, but its not an issue. We don't even need to talk about it. Thank you very much for your visit.' And now, it's sort of 'Come in sit down and talk.' It's clearly on the agenda," he says.
Friday's reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana is the next step in the process of improving diplomatic relations with Cuba, but as evidenced by Castro's column, more work lies ahead in easing decades of antagonism between the countries.