Less than 36 hours after Cuban security hauled away dozens of screaming and yelling anti-government protesters, President Raúl Castro denied the very existence of political detainees.
During a rare televised press conference with President Barack Obama, Castro was asked about government foes in jail.
“Give me the list of political prisoners,” Castro, visibly annoyed, told reporters. “If those prisoners exist, they will be out before nightfall.”
Within minutes, human-rights groups were sending out lists of detainees, ranging from the dozens to the hundreds.
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Frank Calzon, the executive director for the Center for a Free Cuba, called Castro’s statement simple cynicism, particularly after Sunday’s detention of more than 50 demonstrators with the Ladies in White group, just hours before Obama’s arrival.
If General Raúl Castro wants to release all political prisoners in Cuba by nightfall, he could certainly do that.
Frank Calzon, executive director for the Center for a Free Cuba
“If General Raúl Castro wants to release all political prisoners in Cuba by nightfall, he could certainly do that,” said Calzon, who estimated there were anywhere from 80 to 100 people being detained for political reasons at any given moment. “In the same way, he has the power to send trucks out at any time and pick up hundreds of people and have them under lock and key by nightfall.”
White House Spokesman Ben Rhodes said the administration had “shared many such lists” of prisoners with the Cuban administration since the two nations began renewing ties. He said the issue isn’t that Cuba doesn’t know about the detainees, rather “it’s their belief that they are not political prisoners.”
Castro said human rights cut both ways, and he questioned why the United States wouldn’t provide universal healthcare and more social benefits for the young and elderly. In the past, he has questioned the U.S. detention of prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base.
“We are opposed to the manipulation and the double standards that are used,” he said of human-rights coverage in the media. “Cuba has a lot to offer on this issue.”
The White House said Castro’s willingness to take questions at all was evidence that Obama’s rapprochement policy is working. Castro hadn’t agreed to participate in the press conference until Obama convinced him to on Monday, Rhodes said.
“We believe it’s a healthy part of bringing issues out in the open,” Rhodes said, adding that it wouldn’t have happened without the change in policy: “That alone indicates we’re in a new era.”
Obama has been under pressure for not pressing Cuba on its rights record, and some have questioned whether he should be visiting the island at all. But Obama said it was important to make progress where possible, even as the nations disagree over basic ideals.
“Our growing engagement with Cuba is guided by one overarching goal: advancing the mutual interest of our two countries, including improving the lives of our people, both Cubans and Americans,” Obama said during a joint speech with Castro. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve said consistently, after more than five very difficult decades, the relationship between our governments will not be transformed overnight.”
On Tuesday, Obama is expected to address the Cuban people in a nationally televised speech and then meet with dissidents.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said the president needs to be forceful during that broadcast.
“It’s time to move beyond abstract principles and talk specifics: the arbitrary detentions, the blocked websites and the laws used to punish dissent,” he said.
Cooperation and Cruises
The testy press conference came after Obama and Castro held a private meeting Monday where they discussed regional politics and deeper cooperation. The two leaders announced closer agricultural ties and said U.S. and Cuban doctors would begin working together to tackle everything from Zika to cancer.
The day was also rich in business news, as Carnival Cruise Lines said it had been given permission to begin plying the Miami-Havana route in May, and Western Union announced it would begin sending remittances from around the world to Cuba. Previously, the company could only offer remittance services from the United States to the island.
Also on Monday, Obama told ABC News that Google had reached a deal to provide more Wi-Fi and broadband access to the island.
Even as Castro touted the increased cooperation, he said relations could never be normal without the end of the half-century U.S. embargo, which he called “the greatest obstacle to the economy and the welfare of the Cuban people.”
Obama has been slowly dismantling the embargo since the two sides began their rapprochement in 2014, but he said there was little more he could do until Congress repeals the law.
“The embargo is going to end,” Obama predicted. “When? I can’t be entirely sure, but I believe it will end and the path we are on will continue beyond my administration.”
“It is a great honor to pay tribute to José Martí, who gave his life for the independence of his homeland,” Obama wrote in the guest book. “His passion for liberty, freedom and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today.”
First lady Michelle Obama held a meeting with young girls at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an art space and cultural center in Havana.
Later in the day, Obama attended an entrepreneurial roundtable with a few hundred Cuban and American business owners. There, he praised Cuba’s economic reforms, including allowing citizens to sell property or start their own business.
The event also allowed him to show his lighter side.
“If I hadn’t just had a haircut, I would stop by your shop,” he told a self-employed barber.
Also on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Colombian negotiators and members of the FARC rebel group who are in Havana trying to hammer out an agreement to end that nation’s half-century conflict. Obama thanked Cuba for hosting the talks, which have been going on for three years.
“We remain optimistic that Colombians can achieve a lasting and just peace,” he said.
On Monday night, the first family attended the state dinner along with President Castro.
The English-language menu listed the evening’s fare as: “Shrimp mousse under kisch supreme with cream of mojito, and golden cream soup flavored with Caney rum accompanied by slivers of ham,” among others.
On Tuesday, Obama’s final day on the island, he plans to take in a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
What remains unclear is whether there will be room for one more iconic moment on this trip: a meeting between Obama and the other Castro, Fidel.
Asked about the prospect of meeting the ailing leader, Obama told ABC he didn’t know if Fidel would be up for it.
“If his health was good enough that I could meet with him, I would be happy to meet with him,” he said, “as a symbol of the closing of this Cold War chapter.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this story.