Wed, Mar 23, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Obama and Castro lay bare tensions

‘PROFOUND DIFFERENCES’:Cuba’s president spoke at a rare press conference, and became agitated when asked about political prisoners, denying Cuba had any

AP, HAVANA

US President Barack Obama speaks at a meeting with entrepreneurs in Havana on Monday as part of his three-day visit to Cuba.

Photo: Reuters

Laying bare a half-century of tensions, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro prodded each other on Monday over human rights and the longstanding US economic embargo during an unprecedented joint news conference that stunned Cubans unaccustomed to their leaders being aggressively questioned.

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

Obama, standing in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution on the second day of his historic visit to Cuba, repeatedly pushed 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 Obama, who planned to meet with Cuban dissidentsyesterday.

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

Castro was blistering in his criticism of the US embargo, which he called “the most important obstacle” to his country’s economic development.

He also pressed Obama to return the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which is on the island of Cuba, to his government.

“There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away,” 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 Obama and Castro appeared before cameras. It is extremely rare for Castro 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.

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

However, when a US reporter asked about political prisoners in Cuba, he pushed back aggressively, saying if the journalist could offer names of anyone improperly imprisoned, “they will be released before tonight ends.”

“What political prisoners? Give me a name or names,” Castro said.

Cuba has been 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 prisoners as part of its deal to normalize relations with the US, and in a recent report, Amnesty International did not name any current prisoners of conscience in Cuba.

Lists compiled by Cuban and Cuban-American groups list between 47 and 80 political prisoners, although Cuban officials describe many as common criminals.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the US regularly raises specific cases and some are resolved, but added Cuba typically insists they are being held for other crimes.

“I’ve shared many lists with the Cuban government,” Rhodes said.

Obama’s and Castro’s comments were broadcast live on state television, which is tightly controlled by the government and the Cuban Communist Party.

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