US President Barack Obama said he and Cuban President Raul Castro had a “frank and candid conversation” on human rights and democracy, and are making progress in tearing down barriers between the two nations.
In extended remarks after the first private meeting between the leaders, Mr Obama declared it a “new day” in relations between the US and Cuba.
The president noted the two nations have “very serious differences,” particularly on areas regarding freedom of speech, assembly and religious liberty. But he said he believes the two governments are capable of having a “constructive dialogue”.
He noted success in increasing travel between the nations, increased trade and tourism. He said he is working to ease the path for joint corporate ventures and hiring more Cubans in the US.
Mr Obama sought to reassure Cubans wary of the return of US engagement, adding: “Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation. … The future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans not by anybody else.”
After a history-making meeting in Havana, Mr Castro praised Mr Obama’s recent steps to relax controls on Cuba as “positive,” but deemed them insufficient.
He called anew for the US to return its naval base at Guantanamo Bay to Cuba and to lift the US trade embargo.
“That is essential, because the blockade remains in place, and it contains discouraging elements,” Mr Castro said.
Mr Obama came to Cuba pledging to press its leaders on human rights and political freedoms, and vowing that the mere fact of a visit by an American leader would promote those values on the island.
Mr Castro worked to turn the tables on Mr Obama by saying Cuba found it “inconceivable” for a government to fail to ensure health care, education, food and social security for its people – a clear reference to the US.
“We defend human rights,” Mr Castro said. “In our view, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent and universal.”
Mr Obama said he had raised “very serious differences” the US has with Cuba on democracy and human rights, but portrayed those difficult conversations as a prerequisite to closer relations.
Crediting Cuba for making progress as a nation, Mr Obama said part of normalising relations between the two countries means “we discuss these differences directly”.
As Mr Castro prepares to step down in 2018, he has held firm against any changes to Cuba’s one-party political system.