Wednesday 17 January 2018

Obama: It's a new day in relations between US and Cuba

Cuban president Raul Castro shakes hands with US president Barack Obama during a meeting in Revolution Palace (AP)
Cuban president Raul Castro shakes hands with US president Barack Obama during a meeting in Revolution Palace (AP)
Barack Obama and his wife Michelle greet families of embassy staff in Havana (AP)

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro took swipes at each other over human rights and the long-standing US economic embargo during an unprecedented joint news conference in Havana.

The exchanges underscored deep divisions that still exist between two countries despite rapidly improved relations in the 15 months since the two men surprised the world with an announcement to end their Cold War-era diplomatic freeze.

Mr Obama, standing in Havana's Palace of the Revolution on the second day of his historic visit to Cuba, repeatedly pushed Mr Castro to take steps to address his country's human rights record.

"We continue, as President Castro indicated, to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights," said Mr Obama, who planned to meet with Cuban dissidents on Tuesday.

Still, Mr Obama heralded a "new day" in the US-Cuba relationship and said "part of normalising relations means we discuss these differences directly".

Mr Castro was blistering in his criticism of the American embargo, which he called "the most important obstacle" to his country's economic development. He also pressed Nr Obama to return the Guantanamo detention centre, which is on the island of Cuba, to his government.

"There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away," Mr Castro said.

White House officials spent weeks pushing their Cuban counterparts to agree for the leaders to take questions from reporters after their private meeting, reaching agreement just hours before the two appeared before cameras. It is extremely rare for the Cuban president to give a press conference, though he has sometimes taken questions from reporters spontaneously when the mood strikes.

While the issue of political prisoners is hugely important to Cuban-Americans and the international community, most people on the island are more concerned about the shortage of goods and their struggles with local bureaucracy.

Mr Castro appeared agitated at times during the questioning, professing to not understand whether inquiries were directed to him.

But when an American reporter asked about political prisoners in Cuba, he pushed back aggressively, saying if the journalist could offer up names of anyone improperly imprisoned, "they will be released before tonight ends".

"What political prisoners? Give me a name or names," Mr Castro said.

Cuba has been criticised for briefly detaining demonstrators thousands of times a year but has drastically reduced its practice of handing down long prison sentences for crimes human rights groups consider to be political.

Cuba released dozens of political prisoners as part of its deal to normalise relations with the US, and Amnesty International said in a recent report that it knew of no prisoners of conscience in Cuba.

After responding to a handful of questions, Castro ended the news conference abruptly, declaring, "I think this is enough."

Mr Obama then appeared to lean in to pat Mr Castro on the back. In an awkward moment, the Cuban leader instead grabbed Mr Obama's arm and lifted it up as the US president's wrist dangled, an image that immediately grabbed attention on social media.

Mr Obama's visit to Cuba is a crowning moment in his and Castro's bid to normalise ties between two countries that sit just 90 miles apart. The US leader travelled with his family and was taking in the sights in Old Havana and attending a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of America's American League.

While Castro has welcomed increased economic ties, he insisted his country would still suffer as long as the American economic embargo was in place. Mr Obama has called on Congress to lift the blockade, but lawmakers have not held a vote on the repeal.

"The embargo is going to end," Mr Obama said. "When, I can't be entirely sure, but I believe it will end."

Press Association

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