President Raúl Castro of Cuba demanded that Barack Obama hand back Guantánamo Bay and fully end the US trade embargo as their historic first summit in Havana witnessed an unexpectedly spirited clash of political values.
Despite emotional scenes of reconciliation that earlier saw the Star Spangled Banner played to spine-tingling effect by a Cuban band in Revolution Square, the two leaders made clear that rapprochement had only come so far.
“There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away,” said Castro as he turned the tables on the question of human rights and criticised the US for its failures to ensure universal healthcare and equal pay for women.
“In our view, civil, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent and universal,” he added. “We find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and secure the right to healthcare, equal pay and the rights of children. We oppose political double standards in the approach to human rights.”
The Cuban leader also angrily rejected questions by a US journalist who questioned his country’s human rights record, a subject he said should not be “politicised”.
When asked why Cuba still held political prisoners, a visibly irritated Castro responded by asking: “What political prisoners? Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately.
“If we have those political prisoners they will be released before tonight.”
The Cuban government released 53 political prisoners soon after announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US in December, but human rights groups say that dozens more remain in the country’s prisons.
Obama agreed that the two countries still had much to disagree about and said the two had “frank and candid” exchanges during nearly three hours of bilateral meetings earlier on Monday.
“After five very difficult decades, the relationship between our two countries will not be transformed overnight,” said the US president. “We continue to have significant differences … and that includes democracy and human rights.”
But the US president stressed that the “normalising” of relations with Cuba should allow discussion of such disagreements – some of which he personally sympathised with.
“President Castro spoke about what he believes are shortcomings in the US: around basic healthcare and race relations. We welcome that constructive dialogue.”
“Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other country,” Obama added. “Cuba has great pride and the future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans … but the US will continue to speak out on behalf of democracy and human rights.”
Obama’s conciliatory remarks – in which he predicted Congress would soon lift the embargo – may anger critics back home, who claim he has given away too much for too little by restoring diplomatic relations without guarantees of political reform.
But the president, who steps down in nine months’ time, insisted the US needed to play a longer game.
“We might disagree today on something that we may agree on tomorrow,” Obama said.
The contrasting styles of the consummate communicator Obama and the gruff former general Castro made for absorbing viewing, particularly among a domestic audience hungry for news of progress in relations.
Restaurant waiter Víctor Aguilar said it was unusual to see Castro asked about human rights at a press conference. “It’s good, really good. Cuba needs a free media,” said the 21-year-old, who hopes to go to the US for the first time later this year. “It’s a change and we need a change.”
Jean Robert, who works in a photography studio in central Havana, said both leaders came across well. “Raúl and Obama are trying to do the right thing,” he said. “I was very happy that they talked about political prisoners and internet freedom. That’s really important for us. If Raúl says he will release prisoners, then he will. I believe him.”
Pro-democracy activist Rosa María Payá said the spectacle was ridiculous but revealing, particularly with regard to questions on human rights. “This is the first time I have seen Raúl trying to avoid these kind of questions… This regime and the dynastic old general can no longer hide their oppressive methods. From now on the democratic world should choose between accepting the rules of the Cuban dynasty or, as Obama, said, supporting the right of all Cubans to decide.”
She said she hoped the US president will make a still clearer statement of support for a national plebiscite in his speech tomorrow.
On a day many thought they would never live to see, the presidents of the former cold war enemies grinned as they shook hands in Havana ahead of a summit that aims to foster a new era in bilateral relations.
The genial encounter between Obama and Castro at the presidential palace was the highpoint of an emotionally and historically charged morning that also saw a Cuban military band play the US national anthem and US officials standing respectfully in front of giant portraits of revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
Some among the huge visiting delegation of officials and journalists said they felt chills down their spines at a wreath-laying ceremony in which Obama paid his respects to José Martí, the intellectual leader of the Cuban independence movement in the 19th century.
“It is a great honour to pay tribute to José Martí, who gave his life for independence of his homeland,” Obama wrote in the museum guest book. “His passion for liberty, freedom and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today.”
The show of respect for the host nation’s sovereignty set the stage for a visit that aims to reset neighbourly ties that have long been marked by confrontation and threats. No serving US president has visited Havana since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
In the intervening years, a revolution led by Fidel Castro brought a communist one-party government to Cuba, briefly brought the nuclear frontier of the cold war to the doorstep of the United States, and led to a US embargo that has contributed to the dismal condition of the Cuban economy today.
Having broken the ice with a surprise bilateral deal with President Castro on 17 December 2014, the Obama White House has steadily relaxed controls on trade, travel and finance. This week’s visit is the most tangible sign yet of warming ties and ensures that Washington’s new Cuba policy will be one of the president’s main legacies.
Obama rolled into the Cuban capital at the head of a huge delegation, estimated at somewhere between 800 and 1,200, that includes four state secretaries, dozens of congressmen, secret service agents, logistics staff and journalists. As well as the summit between the two leaders, top officials from the State, Commerce and Agriculture departments will hold bilateral talks on Monday.
Many thorny issues remain unresolved. Cuba is adamant that no full rapprochement is possible unless the US lifts its embargo and returns the US navy base at Guantánamo Bay. Neither are acceptable to the Republic-controlled US Congress.
Washington, meanwhile, is encouraging Havana to press forward with market reforms, improve human rights and allow the Cuban populace more say in decision making. The challenges in this area were apparent just hours before Obama arrived on Sunday, when dozens of pro-democracy protesters were arrested by police.
Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.