New era with Cuba has awkward start

President Obama repeatedly urged Cuban President Raúl Castro to answer questions about his human rights record on Monday during an extraordinary and bizarre news conference in Havana.

The leaders unexpectedly took questions from U.S. and Cuban reporters after a meeting intended to advance their efforts to normalize relations following five decades of isolation.

But the question-and-answer session displayed their profound differences on human rights and press freedom, which Obama suggested could serve as an impediment to lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

Castro offered a terse response to CNN’s Jim Acosta, who asked about his country’s political prisoners. Castro refused to admit there are any.

“Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately,” he said through a translator. “Just mention the list.”

It was the first time Castro has taken questions from the American press, reportedly at White House officials’ insistence, and the Communist leader was clearly uncomfortable.

Castro was conferring with aides on stage while Obama answered a question about human rights. When the president finished, he interrupted Castro to remind him the reporter had asked him a question, too.

Typically, Obama’s press conferences with foreign leaders include questions from two members of the American press and two members of the foreign press. But Castro was having none of it. The Cuban leader told members of the media they were directing “too many questions to me.” Obama had to persuade his counterpart to answer one from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who asked him about his vision of Cuba’s future.

“She’s one of our most esteemed journalists in ­America, and I’m sure she’d appreciate just a short, brief answer,” the president said. 

Castro became flustered and launched into a defense of his country’s record of complying with international human rights standards.

“What country complies with them all? Do you know how many? I do. None. None whatsoever,” he said. “Some countries comply [with] some rights, other comply [with] others. And we are among these countries.”

In his prepared statement, Castro was sharply critical of the U.S., stressing that “profound differences” remain in the relationship. At one point he urged the U.S. to hand over the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, which is located at the southeastern end of Cuba.

The press conference ended on another awkward note, when Castro tried to lift Obama’s arm in the air as if he had just won a prize fight. The president stopped his arm and turned his wrist limp, apparently an effort to deny Castro his photo op.

Despite the tensions on display, both leaders offered a dose of optimism about establishing fully normalized relations between the two countries.

The president expressed confidence that the embargo on Cuba would fall, which would open the door to unrestricted trade and travel with the island nation just 90 miles from America’s shores.

“The embargo is going to end,” Obama said. “When, I can’t be entirely sure. But I believe it’s going to end and the path we are on will continue beyond my administration.

“The reason is that what we did for 50 years did not serve our interests or the interests of the Cuban people.”

Obama suggested that support in Congress for repealing the embargo would grow if Cuba were to take steps to improve human rights and expand economic and political freedoms for its people.

“We continue ... to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights,” Obama said, adding that he has had some “very frank and candid conversations” with Castro on the subjects.

Castro praised Obama for taking advantage of the thaw by opening more pathways for travel and trade, including the reestablishment of direct mail service. 

But he said scrapping the embargo and returning the military base at Guantánamo Bay — which he said is “illegally occupied” by the U.S. Navy — would be necessary for the rapprochement to be complete.

“The blockade stands as the most important obstacle to our economic development and the well-being of the Cuban people,” he said. “That’s why its removal will be of the essence to normalize bilateral relations.”

The day’s events provided a vivid example of how difficult it has been for the leaders to navigate unchartered diplomatic waters.

Mistrust between the U.S. and Cuba dates back nearly a century, but was amplified by Cuba’s communist revolution, hatched by Raúl’s brother, Fidel Castro, in the 1950s. 

The relationship between the two nations evaporated almost completely and the two sides engaged in military saber rattling throughout the Cold War, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. 

Obama hailed his visit, the first by a U.S. president in 88 years, as a “new day” for the two countries. 

He praised the hospitality of the Cuban people during his tour of a cathedral and dinner at a privately owned Cuban restaurant, or paladar. 

Obama has focused on the nation’s burgeoning private sector; 400,000 Cuban entrepreneurs have helped start new businesses on the island, made possible by rule changes enacted by Castro. 

Obama met with some of those entrepreneurs during an event Monday at a brewery located in an old warehouse on Havana’s waterfront, where he was able to announce progress on his goal of expanding Internet access to Cubans, currently limited to just 5 percent of homes. 

Google is opening an online technology center at a studio of a well-known artist, according to media reports. The venue will offer Internet speeds almost 70 times faster than are currently available to the Cuban people. 

The president’s appearance at an exhibition game Tuesday between Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team is meant to highlight the two countries’ cultural ties.

But there were constant reminders that the new policy of openness toward Cuba has ­done little to improve the human rights situation on the island. 

On the day of Obama’s arrival Sunday, around two dozen dissidents were arrested in Havana, including some reportedly scheduled to meet with the president during his trip. The arrests served as a message from the government to the Cuban people: Do not undermine the authorities during Obama’s visit. 

Republican critics said the president’s visit validated ­Castro’s approach.

“President Obama says that human rights are important to him,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-born lawmaker, said in a floor speech. “But empty words with no actions to back them up sends a message to the Castro regime to continue with his repression. And Castro continues to do so.”

The president believes that engaging with Cuban officials and civilians will help gradually usher in political reforms.

On Tuesday, he plans to press his case further on human rights in an unprecedented speech to the Cuban people at Havana’s Great Theatre, which will be carried live on state-controlled television. 

Monday’s events began on a lighter note, with Obama participating in an elaborate welcome ceremony at the Palace of the Revolution. Both Castro and Obama smiled as they shook hands before their two-hour meeting. 

The ceremony produced some striking images that were unthinkable 15 months ago, when Obama and Castro first announced their diplomatic thaw. 

Standing beside Castro, Obama placed his hand over his heart as a Cuban military band played the Star Spangled Banner inside the palace, which is the center of Cuba’s Communist government. 

But an early morning photo op gave ammunition to Obama’s conservative critics. The president posed for pictures with the U.S. and Cuban delegations in Havana’s Revolution Square, with large sculptures of revolutionary icons Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos in the background.

Obama was there to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial to Cuban independence hero José Martí.

Updated at 7:50 p.m.