US President Barack Obama is in Cuba for a two-day diplomatic visit, the first of its kind for a sitting US president in almost 90 years. While holding historic talks, Cuban President Raul Castro pushed back at what he called America's "double standards" about human rights.
During the conversation on Monday, Obama sparked the blunt response from Castro after he pushed Cuba to improve its record on democracy and human rights. Obama said the two had "frank and candid" discussions about human rights, as well as areas of cooperation. Castro said they could achieve much better relations if the US lifted its 54-year-old trade embargo on the island.
"We continue to have serious differences, including on democracy and human rights," Obama said at a joint news conference, where Castro made the rare move of taking questions from journalists.
In response to a question on political prisoners, Castro angrily demanded to be shown a list of such detainees, reflecting Cuba's position that it holds no such prisoners.
"Give me a list of those political prisoners right now and if the list exists they will be released before the night is through," Castro said.
Human rights remained an impediment to strengthening ties with Cuba, Obama said, adding that a "full flowering" of the relationship between the two nations could happen only with progress on the issue.
"In the absence of that, I think it will continue to be a very powerful irritant," Obama said. Castro appeared at times uncomfortable and showed flashes of anger as he made the rare step of taking questions from journalists.
In discussing the looming trade embargo, Obama expressed certainty that the US would eliminate it. "What we did for 50 years did not serve our interests or the interests of the Cuban people," he said of the controversial embargo, which can only be lifted by Congress.
The two leaders held face-to-face meetings a day after Obama arrived for the first visit by a US president since 1928. The trip would have been unthinkable in past decades, but became possible after secret talks led to a 2014 agreement to normalize relations between the two Cold War-era foes.
During his first full day in the country on Monday, Obama stopped at Revolution Square, where for decades Raul Castro's brother, Fidel Castro, led million-strong rallies against the evils of US "imperialism." Obama also laid a wreath at the memorial to independence hero Jose Marti, overlooked by a huge metal portrait of legendary rebel fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
"It is a great honor to pay tribute to Jose Marti, who gave his life for independence of his homeland. His passion for liberty, freedom, and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today," Obama wrote in a guest book there.
Marti was a 19th century poet and writer whose activism helped spur Cuba's freedom from Spain and whose legacy was later adopted by Fidel Castro's revolutionaries as a symbol of anti-imperialism. Obama is under pressure from critics at home to push Castro's government to allow political dissent and further open its Soviet-style state-run economy. Earlier in the day, Obama visited the adjacent Palace of the Revolution, where the Castros have led Cuba's resistance to US pressure going back decades.
Obama and Castro have met three times before, but Monday's meeting was expected to be the most substantial as the two men move on from last year's restoration of diplomatic ties and attempt to rebuild the bilateral relationship.
Inside the palace, Castro and Obama stood shoulder to shoulder while a military band played the Cuban national anthem and then the US anthem, and then they walked past a military honor guard. Castro was all smiles as he greeted Obama. But he has said Cuba will not waver from its 57-year-old communist revolution. Government officials say the US needs to end its economic embargo and return the Guantanamo Bay naval base to Cuba before the two countries can enjoy normal relations.
Monday's formal ceremony contrasted with Obama's lower key arrival on Air Force One in Havana on Sunday. Castro did not meet the plane and there were no military honors.
Havana has been unhappy that the US continues to occupy and house political prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. How the current regime feels about the visit was perhaps captured in the state newspaper's chosen headline on the day of Obama's arrival. Instead of featuring the US president's visit as the main story, the Sunday paper focused on a meeting between Castro and longtime Communist ally, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which took place on Saturday.
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