HAVANA: Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a “new day” for the long bitterly divided neighbors.
Castro acknowledged there were still “profound” differences over Cuba’s human rights situation and the decades-old, crippling US economic embargo on the island.
In a sometimes comic, sometimes tetchy press conference — which in an extremely rare move was carried live on Cuban television — Castro refused even to acknowledge that his government holds political prisoners.
“After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will all be released before the night ends,” he said in a sarcasm-laden response to a US journalist’s question.
However, the mere fact that the joint press conference took place in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution — after the leaders met for more than two hours — demonstrated how much has changed.
Obama, the first US president to visit Cuba in 88 years, hailed a “new day” — a “nuevo dia,” as he said — in relations between the former Cold War foes.
Obama said the days of heavy-handed US intervention in the island’s affairs were over.
“Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation,” he vowed.
The US leader also said, without making any promises on timing, that “the embargo is going to end.”
Obama’s visit has raised hopes among struggling Cubans that decades of economic and political stasis may be coming to an end.
But the brief detention of dozens of pro-democracy protesters hours before Obama’s arrival Sunday served as a stark reminder of the regime’s desire to retain its iron grip on power.
“I believe that president Castro truly wants change,” Obama told ABC News.
“I do not believe that President Castro wants to upend the ruling party or the system that they have.”
In only his third formal meeting with Castro, Obama was greeted by a military band that played the Cuban and the US national anthems.
Obama then sat with the Cuban president against a backdrop of tall tropical plants.
Earlier, he laid a wreath at the monument of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti.