HAVANA – “The future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans, not by anybody else,” U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday on the second day of his historic visit to the Communist-ruled island.
“I affirm that Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation,” he said during a joint press conference with Cuban President Raul Castro.
The first sitting U.S. president to step foot in Cuba since 1928 added, however, that Washington “will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy.”
“We’ll speak out on behalf of universal human rights, including freedom of speech and assembly and religion. Indeed, I look forward to meeting with and hearing from Cuban civil society leaders tomorrow,” Obama said after more than two hours of talks with Castro.
The U.S. president’s visit represents a milestone in the process of normalization that he and Raul Castro announced in December 2014 and which led last July to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations after a breach of more than 50 years.
“I’ve said consistently after more than five very difficult decades, the relationship between our governments will not be transformed overnight,” Obama said Monday, adding that he and Castro “have had very frank and candid conversations” about differences on human rights.
Castro, in his opening remarks at the press conference, emphasized that the U.S. and Cuba have profoundly different conceptions of human rights and democracy.
“We think that human rights are indivisible, interdependent and universal,” the Cuban said, “We don’t conceive that a government would not defend or guarantee the right to health, to education, to social security, to nutrition and to development, equal pay for equal work and the rights of children.”
Obama acknowledged Castro’s pointing to “what he views as shortcomings in the United States around basic needs for people and poverty and inequality and race relations.”
“We welcome that constructive dialogue as well because 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,” the U.S. president said.
Castro said his government is prepared to continue the process of normalization, while reiterating that the chief obstacle to progress is the economic embargo Washington imposed on Cuba in 1962.
He reviewed the progress made over the last 15 months, including the restoration of direct postal service between the U.S. and Cuba and the impending resumption of scheduled commercial flights.
“More much could be done if the United States blockade is lifted,” he said, describing as positive but “not sufficient” the steps taken by Obama to ease restrictions on ties with Cuba.
Only Congress can lift the embargo, and Castro expressed appreciation for Obama’s efforts to lobby lawmakers on the issue.
Following their respective statements, the two presidents opened the floor to questions from reporters.
“The embargo’s going to end. When, I can’t be entirely sure. But I believe it will end, and the path that we’re on will continue beyond my administration,” Obama responded to one questioner.
“The reason is logical. The reason is that what we did for 50 years did not serve our interests or the interests of the Cuban people,” he said.
“And as I indicated to President Castro, two things I think will help accelerate the pace of bringing the embargo to an end. The first is to the degree that we can take advantage of the existing changes that we’ve already made and we see progress, that will help to validate this change in policy ... And the second area, which we’ve discussed extensively, is the issue of human rights,” the U.S. leader said.
The Cuban president reacted testily to a question about political prisoners.
“Give me the list of political prisoners right now so I can release them,” Castro said.
While the Cuban government has freed scores of political detainees in recent years, the U.S. government and human rights organizations say Havana continues to arrest and imprison people for their political activities.