If There Are Political Prisoners, They Will Be Released Before Nightfall” says Raul Castro / 14ymedio, EFE

Press conference in Havana with US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. (White House)
Press conference in Havana with US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. (White House)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio/EFE, Havana, 21 March 2016 – Nervous, tangled up in his headphones, with a discourse more appropriate for the Cold War than the 21st century, Cubans were able to see their president this Monday during the live broadcast of the press conference he gave with Barack Obama, after a more than two hour meeting behind closed doors. For Cubans, it was the first time they had seen Raul Castro being questioned by foreign journalists with no ties to the Cuban government.

The leaders took stock of the agreements reached since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in July of last year, each from his own point of view, but both with the firm will to continue along the path.

Castro stressed his government’s readiness to advance normalization and insisted that the “blockade” continued to be the main obstacle to the development of his country. “I confirm that we must put into practice the art of civilized coexistence, that implies respecting and accepting our differences and not making them the center of our relationship,” said the Cuban president.

He recalled that in the 15 months since the announcement of the reestablishment of relations, both countries have made concrete progress, for example in last week’s restoration of direct postal service, and direct regular flights that will start within a few months, among other things.

“Much more could be done if the US blockade was lifted,” said the Cuban president who nevertheless acknowledged the willingness of President Obama and his repeated calls to the US Congress for an end to the restrictions.

He described as “positive” the latest measures from Washington to alleviate the effects of the embargo, but called them “insufficient.” He notes that, “The blockade remains in effect and has elements and intimidating effects that hold back our extraterritorial reach.” Raul Castro did not forgot to demand the return of the lands of the Guantanamo Naval Base.

In his statement, Castro also referred to other “differences” between the two countries. “We believe that human rights are indivisible, interdependent and universal,” he said. “We cannot conceive of a government that does not defend and guarantee the right to healthcare, education, social security, food and development, and equal salary for equal work, and the rights of children,” he added.

Barack Obama’s words focused on the progress in the dialog that both countries have maintained since 17 December 2014, specifically those relating to trade, as well as health, education, science, agriculture, the environment and the internet. Obama also referred to the conversations that have been held to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking.

Obama repeated two words in his remarks several times: “moving forward.” The president was measured in his speech and emphasized twice that the United States should not be seen by Cubans as a threat. “The future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans, not by anyone else,” he asserted.

“After five decades of difficult relations, Cuba and the United States still have serious differences as concerns the issue of human rights and democracy, matters about which we have held very frank and sincere talks,” he said.

He said that in their first meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, in April of 2015, Castro assured him that he could speak on “any issue” and now “all issues are on the table.”

“Part of normalizing our relations means to directly discuss our differences and we are pleased with the dialogue on Human Rights that began in the last year,” said Obama. “We are looking to the future,” he reiterated.

When the press asked questions, Raul Castro was asked by an American journalist with a Cuban father why he was still holding political prisoners. Castro, visibly upset and nervous, replied harshly: “Give me the list of political prisoners now, to release them. Or give it to me after the press conference and before nightfall they will be released.”

Before answering, it was striking that the US president was listening, while Castro was speaking through his headset with an advisor in a loud voice while Obama was responding to the press, which gave rise to widespread laughter in the press room.

A second journalist took the floor and asked the Cuban president a question, and he responded sarcastically: “Many questions for me.” He was only asked three questions.

“The embargo will end. When? I’m not quite sure,” said Barack Obama to an NBC television network journalist who asked if the measures of opening to Cuba will take effect before the end of his term, this year. “This road will continue beyond my administration,” he said.

Obama said that the fact that about 40 lawmakers, including several Republicans, are accompanying him on this trip to Cuba is a sign that there is growing pressure within the US Congress to end the embargo.

“What we did for fifty years served neither our interests nor Cuban interests. If we repeatedly do something that hasn’t worked, it makes sense to try something new,” said Obama.

As for whether the embargo will be lifted before progress is made on human rights in Cuba, Obama said he has “faith in people” and that if both peoples meet each other, talk and establish trade relations, “change will occur.”

Raul Castro agreed to answer one last question from the same journalist, raising his voice, “I said I was going to answer one and I am going to answer one and a half,” and he again insisted that he give him the name of a political prisoner. “You cannot politicize the issue of human rights,” he concluded.

Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), which each month publishes a report with the arbitrary arrests and other attacks against individual and collective freedoms, told 14ymedio, “Right now we are reviewing the list and there are 80 names confirmed by the CCDHRN plus 11 who are in their homes under conditions of parole. We are trying to locate the CNN reporter who asked the question to deliver the list.”

After the press conference, Castro tried to raise hands with Obama but he did not let him.