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Castro says Cuban system to stay

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Raul Castro offers US direct talks

Cuban President Raul Castro says he is willing to enter into dialogue with the US but the island's communist system remains non-negotiable.

Mr Castro said he wanted to respond to recent overtures by Washington.

But in a speech that was given a standing ovation in parliament, he also emphasised that he had not been elected to return Cuba to capitalism.

US President Barack Obama has said he wants to "recast" relations with Cuba but the US has also called for reforms.

In his speech, Mr Castro acknowledged that there had been less aggression and anti-Cuban rhetoric under the Obama administration.

I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism - not to destroy it
Cuban President Raul Castro

He repeated Cuba's willingness "to sustain a respectful dialogue with the United States, between equals".

But he also noted that a decades-old US embargo remained in place and said he wished to respond to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments linking dialogue with reform.

"With all due respect, in response to Mrs Clinton, but also to the European Union... I was not chosen as president to restore capitalism to Cuba or to renounce the revolution," Mr Castro said.

"I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism. Not to destroy it."

Mr Castro, 78, stepped up to the Cuban leadership three years ago when his older brother, Fidel, underwent gastric surgery.

He formally assumed the presidency last year.

In his speech, he scoffed at those who say Cuba's political system will crumble after the "the death of Fidel and all of us".

"If that's how they think, they are doomed to failure," he said.

On the economic front, the Cuban president announced that the government had cut its budget for a second time this year amid a growing financial crisis.

The government has recently pushed through a series of austerity measures and cut its projected economic growth estimate for this year to 1.7%



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