By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - President Raul Castro demanded on Saturday that the United States respect Cuba's communist rule as the two countries work to restore diplomatic ties, and warned that Cuban-American exiles might try to sabotage the rapprochement.
U.S. President Barack Obama this week reset Washington's Cold War-era policy on Cuba and the two countries swapped prisoners in a historic deal after 18 months of secret talks.
Cubans have treated the end of open U.S. hostility as a triumph, especially the release of three Cuban intelligence agents who served long U.S. prison terms for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida.
U.S. officials will visit Havana in January to start talks on normalizing relations and Obama has said his government will push Cuba on issues of human and political rights as they negotiate over the coming months.
Castro said he is open to discussing a wide range of issues but that they should also cover the United States and he insisted Cuba would not give up its socialist principles.
"In the same way that we have never demanded that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours," Castro told the National Assembly.
He again praised Obama for the policy change in a speech that became a partly defiant, partly celebratory show of pride for resisting five decades of U.S. aggression.
Despite the markedly improved tone in relations, Castro said Cuba faces a "long and difficult struggle" before the United States removes a decades-old economic embargo against the Caribbean island, in part because influential Cuban-American exiles will attempt to "sabotage the process".
Obama has pledged to remove economic sanctions against Cuba but he still needs the Republican-controlled Congress to lift the embargo.
Castro confirmed he will take part in a Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, potentially setting up a first meeting with Obama since they shook hands at Nelson Mandela's funeral a year ago.
That brief encounter drew wide attention. Unbeknownst to the world at the time, the United States and Cuba were already six month into secret talks set up with the help Pope Francis and the Canadian government.
Castro's older brother and retired leader Fidel Castro, 88, has not been seen or heard from since Obama's announcement and he was not at the National Assembly on Saturday. Raul Castro ended his speech with an energetic "Viva Fidel!"
The Assembly gave a long standing ovation to Cuba's five "anti-terrorist heroes," intelligence agents who spent between 14 and 16 years in U.S. prison for spying on Cuban exiles.
Two had been released after serving their terms and the United States freed the final three on Wednesday as part of a prisoner swap.
In return, Cuba freed U.S. aid subcontractor Alan Gross, who had been held for five years for bringing in banned telecommunications equipment, plus a Cuban who had spied for the United States and dozens of other unidentified prisoners.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdés and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Kieran Murray)