Playing the role of a painfully polite guest, President Obama offered almost no pushback publicly Monday as Cuban President Raul Castro criticized U.S. shortcomings to his face at a press conference and demanded the return of the “illegally occupied” Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
Emerging from their meeting at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Mr. Obama even said he “personally would not disagree” with the communist leader’s criticisms of U.S. failings on education and health care, because the former Cold War adversaries would benefit from a “constructive dialogue.”
“I actually welcome President Castro commenting on some of the areas where he feels that we’re falling short, because I think we should not be immune or afraid of criticism,” Mr. Obama said, praising Havana for its “enormous achievements in education and in health care.”
Nor did Mr. Obama challenge Mr. Castro publicly when the Cuban leader protested during the sometimes bizarre event that his military dictatorship respects human rights.
“What political prisoners?” Mr. Castro demanded of an American reporter who asked why Cuba was holding dissidents. “Give me a list of the political prisoners, and I will release them immediately.”
A group calling itself the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation has circulated a list of 51 “prisoners of conscience” who have been imprisoned by the Cuban regime in recent years, including activist Mario Alberto Hernandez Leyva, who was beaten and arrested by police during a protest in May 2014 and whose whereabouts is unknown. Human rights groups say Cuban authorities have detained more than 2,500 dissidents in the past year, including 50 of the so-called Ladies in White who were rounded up after Mass on Palm Sunday, shortly before Mr. Obama’s arrival.
The president said he had a “frank and candid” discussion about human rights privately with Mr. Castro and told the Cuban leader that progress on human rights would help persuade Congress to lift its economic embargo against Havana and lead to a “full flowering” of relations between the countries.
“I made it clear that the United States will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy. … We’ll speak out on behalf of universal human rights,” Mr. Obama said.
The president and many lawmakers in both parties favor lifting the embargo, but Republican congressional leaders say the repressive Cuban regime hasn’t earned the right to full trade benefits with the U.S.
The meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro had the appearance of something that Mr. Obama had to get out of the way during the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to the island since 1928. The president will speak directly to the Cuban people Tuesday morning in a speech that will be carried live on Cuban TV.
The trip is focused on encouraging more business ties between the U.S. and Cuba, such as hotel development, tourism, agricultural cooperation and Google’s announcement that it would help improve Wi-Fi and broadband access on the island.
But Mr. Castro was determined to use his appearance with Mr. Obama to point out perceived failures of democracy in the U.S. and to essentially call Americans hypocrites for criticizing conditions in Cuba.
Contrasting the communist system with the U.S., Mr. Castro said, “We have many other rights — a right to health, the right to education. In Cuba, women get [the] same pay for same work. We cannot use the argument of human rights for political confrontation. That is not fair.
“We find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and ensure the right to health care, education, Social Security with provision and development, equal pay and the rights of children,” Mr. Castro said.
On the subject of the naval base, which the U.S. has held since the Spanish-American War in 1898, Mr. Castro demanded that Mr. Obama give it back to Cuba.
“In order to move forward towards normalization, it will also be necessary to return the territory illegally occupied by Guantanamo Naval Base,” Mr. Castro said, calling it one of the “main obstacles” to normalizing relations.
Mr. Obama never mentioned Guantanamo publicly, and some Republicans in Congress, including presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, are concerned that Mr. Obama does want to turn over the naval base to Cuba.
Gitmo is home to the military prison where the U.S. is still holding 91 terrorism detainees. Mr. Obama wants to close the prison and transfer many of the detainees to prisons on the U.S. mainland.
White House aides have said the president has no plans to hand over the naval base to Cuba.
“It’s normal for them to raise Guantanamo,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “We’ve made very clear that’s not on the table.”
But Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican, said in an op-ed Monday that he is “deeply concerned that Obama may also give the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay to the Cubans in order to placate them.”
“This would be a strategic blunder that would haunt us for decades and leave the American homeland exposed,” said Mr. Pompeo, an outspoken opponent of the administration’s plan to transfer detainees to other prisons, including Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
Mr. Obama tried to deflect Mr. Castro’s criticisms of the U.S. on Guantanamo and other issues by saying his visit heralded a “new day” in relations with Cuba.
“Perhaps most importantly, I affirm that Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation,” Mr. Obama said. “Cuba is sovereign and rightly has great pride, and the future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans, not by anybody else.”
Earlier in the day, Mr. Obama participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial, a tribute to the Cuban national hero who fought for independence from Spain in the 19th century. The president was photographed against a mural of the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and was accompanied by Salvador Valdes Mesa, a Cuban leader who participated in the revolution and in repelling the Bay of Pigs invasion organized by the CIA in 1961.
During the short news conference, Mr. Obama appeared irritated when Mr. Castro interrupted his answer to a reporter’s question to confer loudly in Spanish with a Cuban aide near the stage.
“Excuse me?” Mr. Obama said to Mr. Castro as they stood side by side at lecterns.
The Cuban leader explained to Mr. Obama that he was trying to discern whether the American reporter’s question about political prisoners was intended for him. He then launched into his defense that the regime isn’t holding any dissidents.
Mr. Obama did succeed in persuading Mr. Castro to take questions from reporters in the first place, which he rarely does. After answering two questions, the Cuban leader ended the event brusquely by pronouncing, “I think this is enough.”
Then he shook hands with Mr. Obama, gripped the president’s left elbow with his right hand and raised their arms aloft as if to show they were a victorious team. But the taller Mr. Obama didn’t quite go along with the gesture, and his left hand flailed awkwardly in the air, grasping nothing.