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Castro to Obama: Return Guantanamo, Lift Embargo

Cuban President Raul Castro told President Barack Obama that normalizing relations between the two countries could best be achieved by returning land currently occupied by the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay and lifting economic sanctions, Cuban officials said on Tuesday.

The Cuban president reiterated that the "embargo that has caused damages and hardships to the Cuban people and affects the interests of American citizens must be lifted and the territory occupied by the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo should be returned to Cuba," Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parilla told reporters.

The two leaders met with on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday — the first such sit-down between leaders of the two countries on American soil since the Cuban revolution.

As they met, Castro laughed as he looked up and realized that Obama is much taller. The two men briefly shook hands.

Image: Barack Obama, Raul Castro
President Barack Obama talks with Cuban President Raul Castro before a bilateral meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, at the United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik / AP

But beyond the pleasantries, deep ideological differences remain as the two countries work toward normalization.

There are contentious disputes over mutual claims for economic reparations, Cuba's insistence on an end to the 53-year-old trade embargo and American calls for Cuba to improve on human rights and democracy. Rodríguez Parilla told reporters that the two leaders discussed their differences on those areas.

Related: Fidel Castro Says U.S. Still Owes Cuba Many Millions of Dollars in Damages

During a wide-ranging address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Obama highlighted the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba and stressed that the embargo against that country should be lifted.

He added that "Cuba will find its success if it pursues cooperation with other nations."

Obama was flanked during Tuesday's meeting by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power. Castro was joined by Rodríguez Parilla and other aides and officials from his country.

Rodríguez Parilla described the meeting as being held in a "respectful and constructive climate."

In a statement the White House said the president "also highlighted steps the United States intends to take to improve ties between the American and Cuban peoples, and reiterated our support for human rights in Cuba."

The two leaders have spoken on several occasions since taking steps toward normalizing relations and economic ties between the two countries after decades of Cold War hostilities. The two presidents spoke most recently during a rare phone call ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the U.S.

Related: American Flag Flies at Embassy in Cuba for First Time Since 1961

They also spoke earlier this month after the Obama administration announced that U.S companies are now allowed to establish a physical presence in Cuba — a change which will make it easier for people in the U.S. to invest, travel and open up business in Cuba. The two leaders also spoke before their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April.

In August, the American flag was raised over the U.S. Embassy in Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. In July, Cuban officials inaugurated their embassy in Washington.