President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met for the second time this year, on Tuesday in New York, convening for a little over a half hour on the sidelines of the UN's General Assembly.
Following the meeting, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parilla told reporters that discussions "took place in a respectful and constructive climate," and said that the two presidents had discussed steps to continue the process of normalizing US-Cuban relations in the coming months.
In a statement released after the encounter, the White House said the president "highlighted steps the United States intends to take to improve ties between the American and Cuban people and reiterated our support for human rights in Cuba."
During his speech before the General Assembly on Monday, Obama called on Congress to lift an American embargo that has been hoisted on the communist nation for over 50 years. Such a step faces strong opposition from many American legislators, including Florida Senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, whose parents are from Cuba.
Castro raised the embargo again during the presidents' meeting, saying, according to Padilla, that the "embargo that has caused damages to the Cuban people and affects the interests of American citizens must be lifted."
The embargo on Cuba has long been a unifying issue for UN member states. Resolutions introduced by Cuba condemning the restrictions are passed annually with almost universal approval. Last year, only Israel joined the US in voting no. This year, there is some talk that the US itself may abstain from the vote.
Castro also repeated demands that land occupied by an American naval base in Guantanamo Bay be returned to Cuba. Though Obama has announced intentions to empty the prison there of detainees, he has not said it will be handed over to Cuba.
Padilla added that continued US control of Guantanamo was "illegal," adding that "this is a high priority in the process of normalization."
Padilla deftly avoided directly answering questions about Cuba's human rights record, and reports that dissidents in the country were unable to meet with Pope Francis during his visit this month.
"We feel very proud about Cuba's performance in the area of human rights," said the minister.
The pope, who travelled to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia after his trip to Cuba, played a pivotal role in the detente between the Obama administration and Havana.
The two leaders posed for photographs briefly before entering a conference room in the UN Secretariat. Obama and Castro showed more warmth than an even more abbreviated photo op the night before with the American president and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Castro, the brother of Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, first held in-person discussions with Obama in April, when the two met at a summit in Panama. This summer, both countries opened embassies in Havana and Washington, a highly symbolic step, but also one that will assist as the two nations attempt to establish greater trade ties, and as Cuba seeks to acquire investment.
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