After a three-hour closed-door meeting in Havana on Monday, President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro spoke to reporters and TV cameras, pledging their continued bilateral cooperation and criticizing each other's government. Then, in an event perhaps unprecedented in communist Cuba, and one that appeared not quite scheduled, Castro took questions from American reporters, with Cubans watching on live TV.
Cubans appeared shocked, and glued to their TV. "This is pure history and I never thought I'd see something like this," Marlene Pino, 47, told The Associated Press. "It's difficult to quickly assimilate what's happening here. For me it's extraordinary to see this." Street food vendor Ricardo Herrera, 45, said watching Castro field challenging questions was "like a movie, but based on real life." In Cuba, almost all the media is owned by the government.
Obama got the ball rolling, prodding Castro to field a question from NBC's Andrea Mitchell. "It's up to you," Obama told Castro. "She's one of our most esteemed journalists in America, and I'm sure she'd appreciate just a short, brief answer." Mitchell asked about human rights in Cuba, and Castro said that was an inappropriate question then appeared to acknowledge that Cuba wasn't perfect when it came to respecting human and civil rights. "What country complies with them all?" he asked Mitchell. "Do you know how many? I do. None. None whatsoever." He noted that Cuba provides health care and education to its citizens, then slammed the U.S. for paying women less for the same work. "In Cuba, women get same pay for same work," he said.
His second question was from CNN's Jim Acosta, son of a Cuban immigrant, who asked about Cuba's political prisoners. "What political prisoners?" Castro said. "Give me a name or names.... 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." Castro ended the 54-minute news conference abruptly, saying, "I think it is enough." You can watch excerpts and highlights below, including Castro's super-awkward photo-op with Obama. Peter Weber
President Obama and Raúl Castro jointly addressed the public Monday after they sat down for a meeting Monday morning at the Palace of the Revolution. Castro pressed Obama to end the U.S. embargo, and Obama pushed Castro to respect freedom of speech and assembly.
"We believe that when we share our deepest beliefs and ideas with an attitude of mutual respect, that we can both learn and make the lives of our people better," Obama said.
Before the meeting, Obama attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial for poet José Martí. He will also attend an event for entrepreneurs and a state dinner.
Watch the leaders' statements below. Julie Kliegman
Nearly six in 10 Americans are ready for normalized diplomatic and trade relations in Cuba, per a new CBS/New York Times poll released Monday, while only 25 percent oppose the thaw. This news comes as President Obama visits Cuba this week, the first trip to the island by a sitting U.S. president in nearly nine decades.
Though self-identified Republicans were significantly divided on renewed diplomacy — 44 percent support it, but 42 percent oppose — the project finds serious support on Capitol Hill from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
No fan of the Castro regime, Flake argues that open trade with Cuba is the best way to improve Cuban quality of life, and he is willing to call out fellow Republicans who lose faith in the free market where Cuba is concerned. "[I]t always bothered me that as a Republican we preach the gospel of contact and commerce and trade and travel," he recently told Reason, "yet with Cuba we turn around and say, 'No, it's not going to work there.'"
After President Obama landed in Cuba on Sunday, the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island in 88 years, he and his family walked through Old Havana, dined at a restaurant, and visited the Catholic cathedral. On Monday, Obama gets to work, meeting with Cuban leader Raul Castro at the Palace of the Revolution. It will be the fourth encounter between Obama and Castro, and the longest and most substantial. "That's the future that we hope for: young American children, young Cuban children, by the time they're adults, our hope is that they think it's natural that a U.S. president should be visiting Cuba," Obama told staff at the recently reopened U.S. Embassy on Sunday evening. "They think it's natural that the two peoples are working together."
But it's not clear how far Castro is willing to go, or Obama can go. Castro is expected to press Obama to end the U.S. embargo, something only Congress can do, and Obama says he will push Castro to respect freedom of speech and assembly. "I will raise these issues directly with President Castro," Obama told a dissident group, Ladies in White, in a March 10 letter. Hours before Obama landed, Cuban police broke up a Ladies in White protest, arresting dozens, in a weekly occurrence.
Later Monday, Obama will attend a state dinner in his honor, and on Tuesday he will meet with dissidents, watch a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team, and give a speech carried live on state TV. You can watch Obama walk through raining Old Havana with his family in the AFP video below. Peter Weber