In a joint press conference following meetings in Havana today, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro clashed on the issue of human rights in Cuba.
When Obama raised his objection to arbitrary imprisonments of Cuban dissidents, a practice that human rights groups cite as a major hurdle to the freedom of expression in Cuba, Castro denied that his country has any political prisoners.
"I’ve met with people who have been subject to arbitrary detention and that’s something that I generally have to speak on because I hear from them directly and I know what it means for them," Obama said, in answering a question from Cuban-American reporter Jim Acosta about the state of human rights in Cuba.
Castro grew agitated in responding to the question after Obama, denying knowledge of any political prisoners in Cuba.
"What political prisoners? Give me a name, or names, or after this meeting is over you can give me a list of political prisoners and if we have those political prisoners they will be released before tonight ends," said Castro.
While areas of disagreement between the two leaders was on full display, so too were the signs of progress. Marking the first trip to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years, Obama began the news conference by heralding a “new day” in U.S.-Cuba relations.
“For more than half a century, the sight of a U.S. president here in Havana would have been unimaginable. But this is a new day. Es una nueva dia,” Obama said in remarks to reporters at the presidential palace in Cuba.
Castro, in his statement, said that Cuba and the U.S. have achieved “good results” since the reestablishment of bilateral relations, but that that the “positive” steps that have been taken remain “insufficient” due to the continuation of the trade embargo that remains intact and would require an act of Congress to remove.
Castro also called for the return of the territory occupied by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, which he said is “illegally occupied.”
Castro welcomed Obama to the Palace of the Revolution for meetings this morning after the American president visited the memorial honoring Cuban independence hero José Martí.
Obama is in the midst of a two-day trip to the island nation that marks the first visit by a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years and comes after the two countries reestablished a bilateral relationship in December 2014 following more than five decades of severed relations.