In an extraordinary news conference Monday afternoon, President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro sparred over human rights, the Guantanamo prison and their views of their own countries and the world, even as both hailed Obama’s historic visit here as a new step in normalizing relations.
The event was marked by a jarring juxtaposition of diplomatic formality and public jousting, as Castro responded to questions from American reporters by either ignoring them or dismissing them as misguided. At one point, he challenged a U.S. journalist to “give me a name” of any alleged political prisoner here.
For his part, Obama seemed to relish the opportunity to display his comfort in discussing both the things they agreed on, and those they did not. The public exchange was virtually unprecedented in Cuba.
Appearing together after a closed-door meeting on the first full day of Obama’s visit to Cuba — the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1928 — the two leaders began with magnanimous statements about the dramatic improvement in relations. Their work together “benefits not only Cuba and the United States, but the entire hemisphere,” Castro said.
Obama responded that “it’s fair to say the U.S. and Cubans are now engaged in more areas than at any time in my lifetime.” Quoting Castro’s words, he acknowledged that “the road ahead will not be easy. Fortunately, we don’t have to swim with sharks to achieve the goals that you and I have set forth.”
But their differences were clear. Obama said he had spoken “frankly” to Castro about human rights, free expression and democracy in their two-hour meeting. “Our starting point is that we have two very different systems . . . and decades of profound differences.” While the United States would continue to speak its mind, he said, it would not seek to impose its system on Cuba.
Castro called on the United States to abandon the territory it occupies with a military base at Guantanamo Bay, on Cuba’s southwestern tip, and to remove the U.S. embargo against Cuba. He said relations would never be fully normal until both were accomplished.
SOURCE: Karen DeYoung and Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post