Come Hillary or Bernie to the White House and it will be up to Castro’s standards.
President Barack Obama intended to showcase the progress Cuba has made since the countries renewed their relationship 18 months ago with his visit this week to the island nation.
Instead, he found himself on the receiving side of a lecture from Cuban dictator Raul Castro on human rights.
Castro argued that the United States has been hypocritical in its approach to Cuba, as it does not guarantee healthcare and higher education for all of its citizens nor does not provide women with ‘equal pay’ as his country does and pensions.
And he refused to admit that his regime had imprisoned anyone for speaking out against the government, growing furious as he was questioned by a reporter from CNN about his administration’s record of abuses against its own people.
Obama said he and Castro had a ‘frank’ discussion about those issues, and he reiterated America’s belief that freedom of speech, assembly and religion are ‘universal’ human rights.
But he also took ownership of areas where America is ‘falling short’ – saying he does not ‘disagree’ – and thanked Castro for his observations ‘because I think that we should not be immune or afraid of criticism or discussion, as well.’
Both leaders again called for an end to the United States’ trade and travel embargo on Cuba, a legal blockade that only Congress can remove and says it will not.
Castro said this afternoon that it must be removed for relations to be fully normalized. He also demanded that the United States give back the land that houses the Guantanamo Bay naval base and prison.
‘The relationship between our governments will not be transformed overnight,’ Obama declared in his opening remarks, pointing to disagreements on democracy and human rights. ‘But the United States recognizes the progress that Cuba has made a nation.’
As Obama responded to CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s questions ahead of Castro, the head of state held a side conversation with adviser, speaking over the fellow president as Obama talked about what he sees as an ‘impediment’ to additional cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba – the foreign power’s human rights violations.
‘Excuse me,’ Obama finally said, turning to his host, causing a bemused and befuddled corps present at the news conference to break out into laughter.
Castro explained that he was seeking clarification on the questions, and whether they were directed at him or Obama. Specifically, he said he was unsure whether the portion about political prisoners was for him, as well as a request to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two leading candidates in the United States’ presidential race.
He slyly wriggled of the inquiry about American politics, telling Acosta, ‘Well, I cannot vote in the United States.’
Not before he lambasted the American journalist for what he perceived as an impertinent question about his administration’s jailing of its political opponents, however.
‘Give me a list, just give me a list. Give me a name or names,’ he said, according to an interpretation offered to reporters present. ‘If we have as list, they will be released before tonight ends.’
The authoritarian government’s crackdowns on free speech are frequent and well-documented.
Amid the fanfare of Obama’s arrival, as many as 50 protesters demonstrating against the government over its use of force and intimidation were arrested in Havana, including the leader of women’s democracy group, Ladies in White.
The Cuban Observatory on Human Rights last month said the number of dissident arrests had went up – not down – since the U.S. and Cuba announced on Dec. 17, 2014 that they would resume high-level diplomatic relations.
In January alone, 1,474 people were ‘arbitrarily’ detained, the non-governmental organization told Bloomberg Politics.
‘We are moving forward and not looking backwards,’ Obama told Acosta as he took his turn at the microphone, and part of the purpose of his visit was to prove ‘we don’t view Cuba as a threat to the United States.’
Obama said his historic visit – the first from a U.S. president in nearly 90 years – marked a ‘new chapter’ the the countries’ relations.
‘But as is true with other countries,’ he said. ‘We will continue to stand up for basic principles that we believe in.’
The communist country has made ‘enormous achievements’ in healthcare and education, Obama acknowledged.
‘President Castro, I think, has pointed out that in his view making sure that everybody getting a decent education or healthcare’ is a part of basic security and human rights. ‘I personally would not disagree with that, but it doesn’t detract from some of these other concerns,’ said Obama, an architect of a law in the United States expanding access to health insurance.
Obama made history today as he met with Castro in Havana and continued to lay the building blocks for a partnership between their two nations today, meeting for several hours at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana.
The two leaders shook hands as they participated in formal welcome ceremony for Obama before engaging in more than two hours of talks.
‘We had a great tour yesterday,’ Obama told Castro as they spoke for the first time since the first family arrived in Havana. ‘Enjoyed it.’
Obama added, ‘And we had a great dinner.’
They spoke to press this afternoon before parting ways for several hours so Obama could participate in an event that brought together Cuban and American entrepreneurs, including celebrity chef Jose Andres.
Castro and Obama will see each other again at a state dinner tonight that first lady Michelle Obama will also attend at the Palace of the Revolution, also the site of their morning greeting and subsequent bilateral meeting and news conference.
Monday morning Obama also paid his respects to Cuban hero Jose Marti, a major figure in the country’s revolt against Spain in the 19th century. After laying a wreath at Marti’s memorial, a 358 foot tower, in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, a pack of press chased him down as he entered the memorial’s museum to sign his name to the guest book.
Looming in the background during the outdoor ceremony was a massive artwork tribute to Che Guevara, a leader in the 1959 revolution that brought Raul Castro’s brother Fidel to power. Fidel handed off power to his brother in 2008 and will not meet with Obama while he in town.
Obama said today that he’d be willing to meet with Castro to close the loop on the Cold War. His Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters during an evening briefing that it would not happen at this time, however.
‘I think the president was speaking generally about the potential for some engagement in the future,’ Rhodes said. ‘We have not requested such a meeting…the Cubans ahve not suggested such a meeting of us.’