Two Castros, Two Very Different Speeches at the United Nations

Cuban President Raúl Castro addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 28. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

In 1960, Fidel Castro, clad in his signature military garb and flush from victory in the Cuban revolution, spoke before the U.N. General Assembly in New York. His speech lasted four hours and 29 minutes, setting the record for the longest continuous speech ever delivered before that body.

On Monday, Castro's younger brother Raúl gave his first speech before the General Assembly, during his first presidential visit to the United States. And the contrast between his visit and his brother's was stark. Wearing a dark suit, Raúl delivered a prepared speech that was a mere 1,500 words.

Even more striking was his tone. Absent from Raúl's remarks was Fidel's fiery oratory. In fact, the Cuban president only once mentioned the United States's Cuban embargo—the single most important issue in Cuban politics—calling it an "economic, commercial and financial blockade" and demanding its removal. Fidel was never so gentle. In a 1995 speech before the General Assembly, then-President Castro compared the embargo to a "noiseless atom bomb," arguing it "cause[ed] the death of men, women and children, youths and elders."

That Raúl spoke at all was also significant, analysts say. Typically, Cuba's minister of foreign affairs represents the country before the assembly. Since 2009, Bruno Eduardo Rodríguez Parrilla has held that post. Raúl's address was further evidence of the great strides the two countries have made in improving relations since December 2014, when President Barack Obama announced his intention to repair ties. "Castro's visit to New York and his high-level meetings there are helping to sustain the momentum for normalization," says Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and director of the archive's Cuba documentation project.

In past years, the United States has rarely mentioned Cuba when addressing the U.N. But Obama made a point of bringing up the recent lessening of hostilities between the two old rivals during his speech before the assembly on Monday. "For 50 years, the United States pursued a Cuba policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people. We changed that," he said, referencing his administration's moves to loosen sanctions against the island nation. Obama also said he was confident Congress will "inevitably" lift the embargo.

Despite Obama's optimism, there are many unresolved issues between the two countries, most important the embargo, which the president can't lift without congressional approval. "The embargo is the big issue, as Castro emphasized in his speech, but the Republican Congress is not going to lift it before the 2016 presidential election," says William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and author of Back Channel to Cuba. "Obama tended to portray the glass as half full, whereas Castro—listing all the issues still to be resolved between the two countries—portrayed it as half empty, at best."

Despite the lingering negativity, many analysts expect progress. "The next step between now and then is likely to be a series of agreements on issues of mutual interest like counter-narcotics cooperation and environmental protection," LeoGrande says.

The latest positive sign came on Tuesday, when Presidents Obama and Castro spoke face to face, the first meeting between the American and Cuban leaders on U.S. soil since before the revolution. Rising to shake hands, Raúl chuckled as he noticed how much shorter he is than Obama. In a relationship that has been marked by viciousness and vitriol for more than half a century, a sense of humor can go a long way.