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US & Cuba Forge a Path Forward Amid Differences Over Human Rights

Barack Obama and Raul Castro vow to work together despite differences between in a stunning diplomatic display

Updated
World
3 min read
Cuban President Raul Castro, right, lifts up the arm of President Barack Obama at the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Palace of the Revolution. (Photo: AP)

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro tussled on Monday over differences on human rights and democracy but pledged to keep working on a new path forward between their two countries in a stunning diplomatic display.

Obama, midway through his history-making trip to Cuba, succeeded in getting Cuba’s leader to submit to questioning by reporters, a routine occurrence for U.S. presidents but an anomaly in a communist country where the media are tightly controlled. Though Castro’s answers were far from forthcoming, the mere occurrence of the news conference was significant in that way.

Cuba’s President Raul Castro gestures as he speaks during a press conference after a joint statement with US President Barack Obama in Havana, Cuba (Photo: AP)
Cuba’s President Raul Castro gestures as he speaks during a press conference after a joint statement with US President Barack Obama in Havana, Cuba (Photo: AP)

Castro Oblivious to US Political Prisoners in Cuba

Asked by an American television reporter about political prisoners in Cuba, Castro seemed oblivious, first saying he couldn’t hear the question, then asking whether it was directed to him or Obama. Eventually he pushed back, saying if the journalist could offer up names of anyone allegedly imprisoned, “they will be released before tonight ends.”

What political prisoners? Give me a name or names. It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners in general.”
Raul Castro, President, Cuba

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

Cuba is criticized 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 normalize relations with Cuba, and Amnesty International said in a recent report that it knew of no prisoners of conscience in Cuba.

It’s extremely rare for Raul Castro to preside over a formal news conference, although he has sometimes taken reporters’ questions when the mood strikes. The White House worked feverishly to get him to agree, with negotiations going right up until the moment the two walked out of their meeting and faced reporters.

“This is a New Day,” Says Obama

Cuban President Raul Castro, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama during a meeting in Revolution Palace. (Photo: AP)
Cuban President Raul Castro, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama during a meeting in Revolution Palace. (Photo: AP)

Obama, speaking earlier alongside Castro at the Palace of the Revolution, declared “this is a new day” for the U.S. and Cuba, which were estranged for half a century until he and Castro pursued a diplomatic thaw 15 months ago. Still, Obama said he and Castro had spoken openly about U.S. concerns over Cuba’s human rights record, calling such delicate discussions a prerequisite to truly normalising relations.

This (Human Rights concern) is something that we are going to stay on. In the absence of that, I think it will continue to be a very powerful irritant.
Barack Obama, President, United States of America

Castro, in a lengthy statement, worked to turn the tables on Obama by saying Cuba found it “inconceivable” for a government to fail to ensure health care, education, food and social security for its people — a clear reference to the US. Aiming to show the issue needn’t be one-sided, Obama said he was open to hearing Cuba’s concerns.

I actually welcome President Castro commenting on some of the areas where he feels that we’re falling short. Because I think we should not be immune or afraid of criticism or discussion as well.
Barack Obama, President, United States of America

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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