HAVANA — Members of the Cuban parliament gave a standing ovation Saturday to three men convicted of spying in the United States who were released as part of a historic agreement to restore relations between the two long-hostile countries.
The three men, long regarded as heroes in Cuba, appeared before the National Assembly along with family members. Seated behind them in the audience was Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban rafter who in 2000 was at the center of a bitter custody battle between relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba.
President Raul Castro thanked all those who helped secure the release of the convicted spies, members of the so-called "Cuban Five" who operated in South Florida in the 1990s. He expressed gratitude to U.S. President Barack Obama for a "just decision" to trade the men and remove an obstacle to renewed relations.
While praising Obama's moves, the Cuban president made it clear that the agreement between the two countries only goes so far, reminding the audience of his call for the U.S. Congress to end the trade embargo.
"We always have been willing to engage in respectful dialogue on equal terms to address any issues without a shadow over our independence and without renouncing a single one of our principles," he said in a speech carried live on state television.
Castro also confirmed he would attend the Summit of Americas in Panama in April, where he is expected to have further discussions with Obama.
The president closed his speech with "Viva Fidel," in reference to his older brother who has not been seen or heard from since the historic development was announced on Wednesday.
The president's address to the National Assembly was his first since he told his countrymen of plans for Cuba and the U.S. to open embassies and exchange ambassadors for the first time in more than 50 years.
The agreement included the exchange of the three prisoners, convicted in 2001, for a Cuban who had been imprisoned on the island for nearly 20 years for spying on behalf of the CIA. Two members of the Cuban Five, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, had been released by the U.S. previously.
Late Friday, four of the five men gathered to celebrate their reunion in Cuba, singing together during a private party in Havana.
As part of the exchange, Cuba also released 53 other prisoners as well as American Alan Gross, a U.S. government contract worker who had been held in Cuba for five years for illegally importing restricted communications equipment.