Raúl Castro on a screen above delegates at the Celac conference. Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP
Raúl Castro on a screen above delegates at the Celac conference. Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP

Raúl Castro, the Cuban president, has challenged Latin American and Caribbean leaders to improve healthcare and education, telling a regional summit they have the natural resources to eradicate poverty but may lack the political will.

The speech also listed a series of Latin American grievances that directly or indirectly involve the United States, attempting to unify the 33 countries at the summit against their neighbour to the north, which was not invited.

“We have every possibility to abolish illiteracy,” Castro told leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac). “We should have the political will to do it.”

While Castro advised fellow leaders on how to manage their economies, Cuban dissidents and the US admonished the Cubans for stifling a protest planned outside the summit.

Cuban dissidents had been expected to raise issues of human rights at an ad hoc democracy forum at a park in central Havana but were apparently thwarted, complaining that Cuban authorities detained at least 40 activists in recent days as a part of a campaign of harassment before the summit.

With dissidents blocked from leaving their homes, only a smattering of state security agents were present where the forum was to have taken place.

A car drives past in front of a site of the CELAC summit (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) held in Havana January 24, 2014. Reuters/ Enrique de la Oso
A car drives past in front of a site of the CELAC summit (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) held in Havana January 24, 2014. Reuters/ Enrique de la Oso

“Critical voices are silenced during the Celac summit: arrests, threats, mobiles cut,” tweeted dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez.

Amnesty International criticized Cuba for its “campaign of repression against opponents and dissidents” and demanded demonstrations be allowed.

The US state department condemned reports of harassment and arrests of activists. “Our message to world leaders visiting: meet with everyday Cubans and independent civil society to learn what’s really happening and support democratic change,” Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Twitter.

Celac excludes the US and Canada, both members of traditional forums such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Summit of the Americas, which tend to be dominated by Washington.

Castro took a swipe at the US by listing complaints such as spying, the expansion of Nato’s mission following the end of the Soviet Union, the status of Puerto Rico and Ecuador’s ongoing legal battle for compensation from US oil company Chevron Corp for environmental damage.

“We should exercise sovereignty over our natural resources and establish adequate policies relating to foreign investment and with transnational companies that operate in our countries,” Castro said.

The speech by the leader of the only communist state in the hemisphere reminded neighboirs of what Cuba considers two of its greatest achievements since its 1959 revolution: free healthcare and education.

Cuba often cites healthcare and education as human rights, while critics of the country’s government point to the island’s one-party rule and restrictions on free speech.

Castro, who succeeded his ailing older brother, Fidel Castro, as president in 2008, held a moment of silence for the former Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, whose oil subsidies for Cuba have helped sustain the economy. This is the first regional summit since Chávez died of cancer last March at age 58.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, addressed the summit, avoiding any direct reference to Cuba’s rights record and saying only that he encouraged all leaders from the region to strengthen and uphold human rights.

On the sidelines of the summit, the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, said she had spent two hours with Fidel Castro, whom she said was lucid, displayed a sharp memory and “talked a lot”.

Fidel Castro speaks with Dilma Rousseff during a meeting in Havana on Monday. Photograph: Alex Castro/AFP/Getty
Fidel Castro speaks with Dilma Rousseff during a meeting in Havana on Monday. Photograph: Alex Castro/AFP/Getty

Rousseff met Castro, 87, on Monday. She said he discussed his contemporaries, such as former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and historical figures such as Napoleon.

Castro has rarely been seen in public since he took ill in 2006 and handed over power to his younger brother, at first provisionally in 2006 and then definitively in 2008.

“He talked a lot,” Rousseff said of Fidel Castro, who was famous for lengthy speeches in his younger days, such as the time in 1960 when he told the UN general assembly “we shall endeavour to be brief” and then spoke for a record four and a half hours.

“He is well, wholesome, lucid,” Rousseff said. “It’s very interesting because a person who lived through such an important moment in world history personally knew a lot of things, and he has an excellent memory, telling stories.”


Stay up to date with the latest stories by signing up to our newsletter, or following us on Facebook.