| UNITED NATIONS
UNITED NATIONS Cuba signed two U.N. human rights pacts on Thursday that long-time president Fidel Castro, replaced by his brother just four days ago, had refused to endorse for more than three decades.
But the communist-run island's foreign minister said after signing the documents at U.N. headquarters in New York that Havana still shared the reservations expressed by Castro about the pacts and would formally record them in future.
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Both went into force in 1976 at the height of the Cold War.
Perez Roque had announced on December 10 Cuba's intention to adhere to the accords. He also said then that Cuba would open its doors in early 2009 to regular international scrutiny by the recently created U.N. Human Rights Council.
Cuba refused visits by a special rapporteur appointed by the council's predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which Havana said was manipulated by the United States.
In June, the Geneva-based council dropped Cuba from a list of special investigatory mandates for countries where human rights records are of particular concern, in a move criticized by the United States and Canada.
Perez Roque said in a statement on Thursday the decision to sign "has been taken now that the selective and unjust mandate against Cuba imposed by the brutal pressure and blackmail carried out by the United States ... has been clearly defeated."
He called this "a historic victory for the Cuban people," adding that the signature was "a sovereign decision of the Cuban government."
In Havana, a European diplomat called the signing "a first step in the right direction" by the new government headed by Castro's brother Raul and hoped it would be followed up by the freeing of some jailed dissidents.
Cuba is a one-party state which critics say has imprisoned more than 200 political prisoners. Cuba says it holds no political prisoners and labels all dissidents as "mercenaries" on the payroll of the U.S. government.
The U.N. covenant on civil and political rights enshrines freedom of opinion and association and the right to vote in elections but does not specifically say people have a right to live in a multi-party democracy.
When Cuba announced it would sign the pacts, Raul Castro was already governing on behalf of his ailing brother, who was still nominally president.
Two days later, Fidel Castro reprinted objections he had made in 2001. He said the political rights pact could be used as an instrument against Cuba by "imperialism", while two articles in the economic, social and cultural accord were unacceptable.
The first, establishing the right of workers to have independent trade unions, was fit only for capitalist countries, he said, while the second, on education, would open the door to its privatization.
On Thursday, Perez Roque said the Cuban government "shares totally the point of view expressed by ... Fidel Castro", but that this did not contradict the decision to sign.
He said that on signing he had handed the United Nations a statement saying that on "the scope and application of several of the elements contained in these international instruments, Cuba will register those reservations or interpretative declarations it considers relevant."
Asked about the U.S. presidential campaign, Perez Roque said he had a favorite candidate but he refused to name the person.
Of the three candidates with a serious chance of winning -- Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain -- only Obama has suggested any softening towards Cuba, on which the United States has long imposed a trade embargo.
Obama has said he is willing to meet Raul Castro and has proposed some slackening of curbs on U.S. travel and remittances to Cuba.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana)
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)