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Emerging from a historic meeting with his Cuban counterpart, President Obama said Monday that he remained concerned about the communist island's record on human rights but said the two countries had enough in common to negotiate a slow normalization of relations.
"When we share our deepest beliefs on an attitude of mutual respect, then we can both learn and make the lives of our people better," Obama said in a joint appearance with Cuban President Raul Castro.
He also said the United States respected Cuba's sovereignty. "The future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans and not by anyone else," he said.
Castro spoke before Obama, saying his country remained committed to normalizing relations but reiterated that it could only happen if Congress ends a decades-old economic blockade.
The blockade, Castro said, is "the most outstanding obstacle to our economic development."
In a not-so-subtle dig at critics of Cuba's harsh treatment of dissidents, Castro insisted that Cuba "defended human rights" and suggested that America should practice what it preached on universal access to health care, equal pay, education and other issues.
During a news conference afterwards, Castro said that he would release any political prisoners currently in custody — so long as he was given “a name or names,” he said.
“If we have them, they will be released before tonight ends,” he said, adding that no country complies with all human rights “instruments” and that the issue should not be used for “political confrontation.”
“It is not right,” he said. “It is not correct.”
Obama rolled with Castro’s jabs, saying that he welcomed the Cuban president “commenting on some of the areas where we’re falling short.” He also pointed out that having “fierce disagreements” on human rights wasn’t particular to Cuba. China, Burma and Vietnam were examples where “engaging frankly” and “clearly” on the issue served as a better strategy than “rigid disengagement.”
Still, without progress on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, for instance, human rights issues would remain a “very powerful irritant” to the “full flowering of a relationship” between the two countries, Obama said.
Obama sought to show where the U.S. and Cuba were already forging strong bonds: on travel, trade, agriculture and the internet. But when it came to American politics — and a question about who Castro would prefer from the crop of presidential hopefuls — the Cuban leader declined to weigh in.
“I cannot vote in the United States,” he said.
The two-hour meeting marked the culmination of Obama's first full day in Cuba, which began with a trip into the heart of the Communist island nation's seat of power: a visit to a local hero's memorial. Then he walked to the the Palace of the Revolution.
Seeking to press Cuba into speedier economic reforms and improved human rights, Obama is the first American president to visit since Calvin Coolidge nearly 90 years ago. His bilateral discussion with Castro was not their first meeting, but was the most meaningful by far.
Obama has made a priority of seeking more help for large and small businesses — including the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have taken advantage of incremental economic opportunities and become entrepreneurs. Castro, brother of former president Fidel Castro, has insisted that Congress lift a decades-old economic embargo and pull the military out of Guantanamo Bay.
Looming over the visit is the Castro regime's treatment of dissidents. Civil rights advocates said there were signs of a crackdown on some of the most outspoken of them in advance Obama's arrival, and authorities have not let up on their arrests of protesters who take part in weekly demonstrations.
The president's opponents, including Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, who is of Cuban heritage, have criticized Obama for not being more outspoken about the plight of dissidents.
Obama will likely bring up human rights in a Tuesday speech to the Cuban people. After those remarks, he will meet with a group that is expected to include dissidents and members of the political opposition.
Obama's arrival in Havana Sunday afternoon was the result of a long effort to thaw the United States' antagonistic relationship with Cuba, which dates to the country's 1959 Communist revolution. The Obama administration has made incremental moves to loosen certain economic blockades, making it a little easier for Americans to visit and for money to pass between the countries. But more sweeping limits set by Congress endure.
The less controversial stops in Obama itinerary this week include a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, a visit with Havana's archbishop and events with other members of Cuban society.
Obama started his Monday by attending a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial to Jose Marti, a poet and a journalist, who fought for Cuban independence from Spain in the late 1800s.
The president signed the visitor's book. According to the White House, this is what he wrote: "It is a great honor to pay tribute to Jose Marti, who gave his life for independence of his homeland. His passion for liberty, freedom, and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today."