Obama, Castro acknowledge divide but commit to work on restoring ties

obama and castro

US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro held talks yesterday. (Photo: White House)


HAVANA, Cuba, Tuesday March 22, 2016 – A historic meeting in Havana between United States President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro yesterday confirmed the deep differences that remain between the two countries, but the leaders have committed to further deepening of relations.

A day after landing in Cuba and becoming the first sitting American president to visit the island in 88 years, Obama held talks with Castro before the two faced the media at a press conference.

Obama said that after more than five “very difficult decades”, the relationship between the two governments could not be transformed overnight.

“We continue to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights,” he acknowledged. “And President Castro and I have had very frank and candid conversations on these subjects.”

“Even as we discuss these differences, we share a belief that we can continue to make progress in those areas that we have in common . . . And today, I can report that we continue to move forward on many fronts when it comes to normalizing relations.”

obama in cuba

US President Barack Obama greets people in Old Havana, Cuba, on Sunday. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


At the same time, Obama added while the US recognized progress that Cuba has made, particularly in education and health care, it also intended to “speak out on behalf of universal human rights, including freedom of speech, and assembly, and religion”.

The Cuban government has been accused of holding political prisoners, but Castro suggested yesterday that his administration has no such detainees.

Questioned about the issue yesterday, Castro replied: “Give me the list of political prisoners and I will release them immediately. Just mention a list. What political prisoners?  Give me a name or names. After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners and if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends.”

He continued to defend his country’s record, stressing that human rights also involved ensuring that citizens get decedent education and health care.

However, while saying he would not disagree with Castro on that point, Obama said that did not detract from the other concerns.

“I think there is enormous hope that there can be reconciliation . . . There are family ties and cultural ties that are so strong. One of the impediments to strengthening those ties is these disagreements around human rights and democracy.  And to the extent that we can have a good conversation about that and to actually make progress, that, I think, will allow us to see the full flowering of a relationship that is possible.  In the absence of that, I think it will continue to be a very powerful irritant,” Obama said.

“I’ve met with people who have been subject to arbitrary detention, and that’s something that I generally have to speak out on because I hear from them directly and I know what it means for them.”

Obama, who is accompanied in Cuba by a large delegation that includes nearly 40 members of Congress – Democrats and Republicans – as well as some of America’s top business leaders and entrepreneurs, said the human rights issues have been partly responsible for the economic blockade on Cuba remaining in place.

“We have administratively already made a number of modifications on the embargo . . . and we’ve actually been fairly aggressive in exercising as much flexibility as we can, given that the law putting the embargo in place has not been repealed by Congress. There may be some technical aspects of the embargo that we can still make adjustments on, depending on problems as they arise.

“The list of things that we can do administratively is growing shorter, and the bulk of changes that have to be made with respect to the embargo are now going to rely on Congress making changes . . . The fact that we have such a large congressional delegation with Democrats and Republicans with us is an indication that there is growing interest inside of Congress for lifting the embargo . . How quickly that happens will, in part, depend on whether we can bridge some of our differences around human rights issues.”

During yesterday’s press conference, Obama also announced several areas of cooperation that he and Castro had agreed on. They include partnerships in health, science, and the environment.

“Our medical professionals will now collaborate in new areas, preventing the spread of viruses like Zika and leading new research into cancer vaccines,” the American president said, adding that they would also work together to fight climate change.

Obama said the two were also moving forward with closer cooperation on regional security, particularly as it relates to narco-trafficking.