United States President Barack Obama yesterday pushed Cuba to improve human rights during his historic visit to the Communist-led island, publicly sparring with President Raul Castro who showed flashes of anger and hit back at US "double standards".
Obama, whose visit to Cuba is the first by a sitting US president since 1928, praised Castro for openly discussing their differences but he said a "full flowering" of the relationship would happen only with progress on the issue of rights.
"In the absence of that, I think it will continue to be a very powerful irritant," Obama said in a joint news conference with Castro that began with jokes but was tense at times.
"America believes in democracy. We believe that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and freedom of religion are not just American values but are universal values," he said.
Castro said their work together "benefits not only Cuba and the United States, but the entire hemisphere". Obama responded that "it's fair to say the US and Cubans are now engaged in more areas than at any time in my lifetime".
Quoting Castro's words, he acknowledged that "the road ahead will not be easy. Fortunately, we don't have to swim with sharks to achieve the goals that you and I have set forth".
Both men's remarks were broadcast live on Cuban state television from Cuba's Palace of the Revolution in a room draped with the Stars and Stripes and the Cuban flag.
Castro countered that no country meets all international rights but appeared uncomfortable as he made the rare step of taking questions from journalists in a country where the media is state-controlled.
Obama, the first US president to visit Cuba in 88 years, agreed in 2014 to improve relations with the former Cold War foe but he is under pressure at home to push Castro's Government to allow political dissent and to further open its Soviet-style economy.
He said the two sides would hold talks on human rights in Havana later this year.
Opponents say Obama has given away too much as he improves ties, with too little from Castro in return, although the leading Republican candidate for the November 8 presidential election, Donald Trump, said yesterday he would likely continue to normalise ties with Cuba if elected.
Castro, an army general who became president when his ailing older brother Fidel retired in 2008, had never before taken questions from foreign reporters on live Cuban television and was clearly irritated when asked about political prisoners in Cuba, demanding the reporter produce a list of those in jail.
"Tell me now. What political prisoners? Give me a name, or the names," Castro said. "And if there are these political prisoners they will be free before nightfall."
Cuba says it has no political prisoners and that the dozens listed by dissident groups are instead common criminals.
Castro said Cuba had a strong record on rights such as health, access to education and women's equality. His Government criticises the US on racism, police violence and the use of torture at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.
Ben Rhodes, a senior Obama aide, later insisted that Cuba has political prisoners and said the US Government had shared lists of them with Cuba. He said Cuba has shifted from long prisons terms to short-term detentions of political opponents.
Later, Castro sat between Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for a dinner of rum-flavoured soup and pork, at a table that also included the leaders' top advisers.
Open for business ...
In the coming weeks, when American hotel executives arrive to take over management of Havana's landmark Hotel Inglaterra, chef Jorge Luis Bormey will become one of the first Cubans to work for a US company in nearly 60 years.
Americans dominated Havana's hotels and casinos until Fidel Castro's bearded rebels threw them out and took over the properties, depicting the US owners as exploitative capitalists.
Bormey isn't too concerned. "I'm excited," he said. "We're pioneers."
The Inglaterra, where Bormey has spent 15 years frying bananas and stirring pots of black beans, is one of the three properties the Starwood Hotels and Resorts chain will operate in a trailblazing arrangement that blows the biggest hole yet in the US trade embargo first imposed in 1960.
The deal reached by Starwood, which Marriott International is attempting to acquire, was possible only with specific approval from the Obama Administration, and it represents a sea change in the thinking about the best way to influence Cuba's rigidly controlled one-party system.
Instead of blocking off the forces of American capitalism, the Obama Administration now wants them to come flooding in - and leave it up to the Cuban Government to deal with the consequences. Critics say Cuban officials will know how to extract the financial benefits without ceding political control or allowing a Cuban middle class to develop that could demand greater freedoms.
Obama's visit is expected to trigger a cascade of new commerce between the longtime foes as the White House pushes the legal boundaries of the trade sanctions and increasingly renders them meaningless.
Though Obama's stated goal of allowing increased trade and travel is to benefit the Cuban people, Starwood's management contract will make it a direct partner of Cuban state firms, including the military-run tourism company Gaviota.
The Cuban Government will retain ownership of the physical property, but it will be up to Starwood to run the place.
"Everyone knows that they're going to bring improvements and raise the standards of the hotel," said Ania Mastrapa, the public relations manager who doubles as the hotel's unofficial historian.
While some Cuban staff members at the hotel said they were a bit worried about whether Starwood would let them keep their jobs, Mastrapa said she was confident the new managers would want to keep her.
"I've worked here 20 years," she said. "Who else could tell the story of this place with so much affection?"
- Washington Post - Bloomberg