Joy as Cuba enters thaw with US ‘without renouncing principles’

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Bells tolled in celebration and teachers halted lessons as President Raul Castro told his country Cuba was restoring relations with the United States after more than 50 years of hostility.

Wearing his military uniform with its five-star insignia, the 83-year-old leader said the two countries would work to resolve their differences “without renouncing a single one of our principles”.

Havana’s residents gathered around television sets in homes, schools and businesses to hear the historic national broadcast, which coincided with a statement by US president Barack Obama in Washington. Uniformed schoolchildren burst into applause at the news.

At the University of San Geronimo in the capital’s historic centre, the announcement drew ringing from the bell tower.

Throughout the capital, there was a sense of euphoria as word spread.

“For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen, a wish come true, because with this, we have overcome our differences,” said Carlos Gonzalez, a 32-year-old IT specialist. “It is an advance that will open the road to a better future for the two countries.”

Guillermo Delgado, 72, welcomed the announcement as “a victory for Cuba because it was achieved without conceding basic principles”.

But Yoani Sanchez, a renowned Cuban blogger critical of the government, said the development came with a price. Mr Castro, she wrote, had made a “bargaining chip” of Alan Gross, the US aid worker who was released from prison while the US freed three Cubans held as spies.

“In this way, the Castro regime has managed to get its way,” she wrote. “It has managed to exchange a peaceful man, embarked on the humanitarian adventure of providing internet connectivity to a group of Cubans, for intelligence agents that caused significant damage and sorrow with their actions.”

Fidel and Raul Castro led the 1959 rebellion that toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The US initially recognised the new government but broke relations in 1961 after Cuba veered sharply to the left and nationalised American-owned businesses.

As Cuba turned towards the Soviet Union, the US imposed a trade embargo that has remained in place since 1962. Particularly since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cubans have confronted severe shortages of oil, food and consumer goods,forcing them to ration everything from beans to powdered milk.