Scenes from the welcoming ceremony for Obama in Cuba
In a testy and rare exchange with reporters Monday, Cuban President Raúl Castro dismissed a question about political prisoners on the island, challenging the press to provide details.
“Give me the list of political prisoners,” he said. “If those prisoners exist they will be out before nightfall.”
The pointed question about human rights, made directly to Castro, might have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but underscores how rapidly the island is changing.
It also comes the day after some 50 anti-government protesters were detained, at least temporarily, as they handed out fliers and blocked roads in Havana.
In a joint press conference on the second day of President Barack Obama’s visit to the island, both men said they would keep seeking opportunities for cooperation even as they acknowledged their deep differences.
Castro said that talk of human rights in the region goes both ways, questioning how the United States could not provide universal healthcare and more social supports for the young and elderly.
“We are opposed to the manipulation and the double standard that’s used” in terms of human rights, he said. “Cuba has a lot of offer on this issue.”
The press conference came after the two men held a private meeting and Obama said he had addressed the civil rights issue.
“We continue, as President Castro indicated, to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights,” Obama said.
“You know, our growing engagement with Cuba is guided by one overarching goal, advancing the mutual interest of our two countries, including improving the lives of our people, both Cubans and Americans,” he added. “That's why I'm here. I've said consistently after more than five very difficult decades, the relationship between our governments will not be transformed overnight.”
But he also reassured the island that its destiny would “not be determined by the United States or any other nation...the future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans.”
On Tuesday, Obama is scheduled to meet with Cuban dissidents.
Even as Castro announced agreements on additional agricultural and medical cooperation, he harped on two key issues: the half-century U.S. embargo, which called “the greatest obstacle to the economy and the welfare of the Cuban people,” and the return of Guantanamo Naval Base
Obama has been slowly dismantling the embargo since the two sides began their rapprochement, but he said there was little more he could do until congress repeals the law.
“The embargo is going to end,” Obama said. “When, I can’t be entirely sure, but I believe it will end and the path we are on will continue beyond my administration.”
The press conference was remarkable for the Cuban regime. While President Castro does give speeches he very rarely takes questions from the press.
Behind their podiums, the two men seemed at ease.
“President Castro always jokes with me about how long Castro brother speeches can be,” Obama said, “but I'm going to actually go a little longer than you probably today, with your indulgence. We have a half a century of work to catch up on.”
Castro dodged a question about whether he preferred Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump by saying it didn’t matter because he couldn’t vote in the United States.
At the end of the conference, Castro tried to lift Obama’s limp arm into the air. It was an awkward photo-op capturing a rare moment of U.S.-Cuban unity.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Mimi Whitefield and McClatchy Correspondent Lesley Clark reported from Havana