By Isaac Risco and Judge Beatriz
HAVANA TIMES — The presidents of Cuba and the United States, Barack Obama and Raul Castro, met today to give a new impetus to the historic rapprochement between the two countries with their first encounter on Cuban soil, reported dpa news.
Obama said the meeting with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana marks “a new day” in the difficult relations between the two former ideological enemies. Raul Castro also welcomed the thaw started 15 months ago, despite the differences that still divide the two governments.
“We must practice the art of civilized coexistence,” Castro asked in a joint appearance and press conference with his US counterpart. Castro symbolically raised Obama’s arm at the end of the presentation to the media. The president of the island almost never gives press conferences in Havana.
The following is the tape of the press conference following the Obama-Castro meeting. Obama speaks in English and Castro in Spanish.
The presidents held private talks for two hours before the press conference. The meeting is the third between the two heads of state since the restored relations began in December 2014.
“Half a century ago, the presence of a President of the United States here in Havana would have been unthinkable, but it is a new day between our two countries,” said Obama, the first US president to travel to Cuba in 88 years said.
The US president stressed that sharp differences still remain between the two countries on certain issues. “The United States believes in democracy. We believe that freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of worship are not just American values but universal values,” he said.
“I’m waiting to meet and listen to the leaders of the Cuban civil society tomorrow,” he said in relation to a meeting that is scheduled on Tuesday with a dozen dissidents.
Relations between Washington and Havana “will not transform overnight”, predicted the president.
Castro, meanwhile, did not evade addressing the thorniest issues for which his government is criticized from the United States and by dissidents at home. The younger brother of Fidel Castro called for the lifting of the embargo and the return of the Guantanamo naval base in the east of the island, and indirectly rejected the presence of political prisoners on the island.
“Give me the list of political prisoners to release them right now,” the president responded to a journalist’s question.
Following Castro’s statement, several human rights organizations close to the Cuban exile community began circulating lists of the names of prisoners. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), the only non-governmental group that collects such data within the island, says the number of political prisoners is 80. The Castro government does not recognize the CCDHRN, although it tolerates its existence.
The Cuban president also rejected criticism on the situation of civil liberties on the island. “We defend human rights,” he said. Havana links them especially to collective achievements such as universal access to health and education, guaranteed on the island, and denies that his government fails to respect civil rights.
Obama was received this morning with military honors at the Palace of the Revolution, where he went to meet with Castro. It was the first time the two leaders saw each other since the US president arrived on the island on Sunday for three-day visit. Raul Castro greeted Obama with a handshake before starting the official meeting.
Earlier, Obama had placed a wreath at the monument to Cuban national hero Jose Marti in the nearby Revolution Square, where former President Fidel Castro used to pronounce marathon speeches criticizing US imperialism.
The square is also known for a giant image of Argentine guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara on a nearby building, and another of Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos.
Obama’s visit to Cuba does not provide for a meeting with Fidel Castro, who has lived for years mostly removed from public view. Fidel did meet earlier in the week with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Dozens of onlookers stationed on the streets near the Plaza of the Revolution to see Obama pass by celebrated with shouts to the US delegation. Some wore symbols with the colors of the American flag or T-shirts with the iconic image of Obama that became popular in the 2008 US elections and the word “Change”.
Cuba and the United States were at odds for more than half a century after the triumph of the revolution in 1959. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1961, a peak of the Cold War between capitalist and communist blocks.
Castro and Obama held the first face-to-face meeting in decades between presidents of the two countries in April 2015, during the Summit of the Americas in Panama. They met again last September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The governments of Washington and Havana formally resumed diplomatic relations in July 2015 after 54 years. Over the last 15 months top and mid-level officials of the two governments have met to forge cooperation in a number of areas including fighting human and drug trafficking, on anti-terrorism, and on environmental issues.