This afternoon in Havana, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro held a joint press conference. The video clip above, edited from the official White House stream, commences with President Obama’s opening remarks right after Castro speaks in Spanish to the media.
The following text is an excerpt of what President Obama said at one point of the press conference (you can find a full transcript here):
You know, 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. 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. We continue, as President Castro indicated, to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights. And President Castro and I have had very frank and candid conversations on these subjects.
The United States recognizes the progress that Cuba has made as a nation, it’s enormous achievements in education and in health care. And perhaps most importantly, I affirm that Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation. Cuba is sovereign and rightly has great pride and the future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans, not by anybody else.
At the same time, as we do wherever we go around the world, I made it clear that the United States will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy, including the right of the Cuban people to decide their own future. 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.
But as you heard, President Castro’s also addressed what he views as short comings in the United States around basic needs for people and poverty and inequality and race relations, and 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.
A part of normalizing relationships means that we discuss these differences directly, so I’m very pleased that we’ve agreed to hold our next U.S.-Cuba human rights dialogue here in Havana this year. And both of our countries will welcome our visits by independent United Nations experts as we combat human trafficking, which we agree is a profound violation of human rights.
Even as we discuss these differences, we share a belief we can continue to make progress in those areas that we have in common. President Castro, you said in Panama that we might disagree on something today on which we would agree tomorrow. And that has certainly been the case over the past 15 months and the days leading up to this visit.
When answering questions from the press, Castro was asked why Cuba detains political prisoners. Here is what he said via a translator:
Well, give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately. Just mention the list. What political prisoners? Give me a name or names or when — after this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends.
Later in the press conference, Obama admitted that the lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba still rested on Congress:
…the list of things we can do administratively is growing shorter, and the bulk of changes that have to be made with respect to the embargo are now going to rely on Congress making changes.
I’ve been very clear about the interest in getting that done before I leave. Frankly, Congress is not as productive as I would like during presidential election years. But the fact that we have such a large congressional delegation, with Democrats and Republicans with us, is an indication there is growing interest inside of Congress for lifting the embargo.
As I just indicated my earlier answer, how quickly that happens will, in part, depend on whether we can bridge some of our differences around human rights issues. And that’s why the dialogue, I think, is so important. It sends a signal that at least there’s engagement between the two countries on these matters. OK.
During the last few minutes of the press conference, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell asked Castro the following question: “What is the future of our two countries, given the different definitions and the different interpretations of profound issues like democracy and human rights?” Here is what Castro told Mitchell via a translator:
The other day I asked a question to our foreign minister, Andrea. But there is a program here to be fulfilled. I know that if I stay here, you’ll make 500 questions. I said that I was going to answer one. Well, I’ll answer one and a half.
President Obama has already helped me out with the answer here, Andrea. Well, Andrea. I was reading here something I think about human rights, but I’m going to make the question to you now. There are 41 — there are 61 international measures to recognize how many countries in the world comply with all the human rights and civil rights that have been included in these 61 measures.
What country complies with them all? Do you know how many? I do. None. None whatsoever. Some countries comply some rights, other comply others. And we are among these countries. Out of these 61 measures, Cuba has complied with 47 of these human rights measures.
There are countries that may comply with more, those that comply with less. I think human rights issues should not be politicized. That is not correct. If that is a purpose, then we will stay the same way. Like, for example — for Cuba that does not fulfill all the rights.
Do you think there is any other — more sacred right than the right to help so that billions of children don’t die just for the lack of a vaccine or a drug or a medicament. For example, do you agree with the right to free education for all those born anywhere in the world or in any country? I think many countries don’t think this is a human right.
In Cuba, all children are born in a hospital and they are registered that same day because when mothers are in advanced pregnancy, they are — they go to hospitals days before, many days before delivery, so that all children are born in hospitals. It doesn’t matter if they live in faraway places or in mountains or hills.
We have many other rights — a right to health, the right to education. Do you — and this is my last example that I will mention. Do you think that for equal work, men get better pay than women just for the fact of being women? Well in Cuba, women get same pay for same work. I can give you many, many examples, so I don’t think we cannot use the argument of human rights for political confrontation. That is not fair. It’s not correct.
I’m not saying that is not honest, it’s part of confrontations, of course. But let us work so that we can all comply with all human rights. It’s like talking about pride — and I’m going to end here because there is a commitment that we should end in time. It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners in general. Please give me the name of a political prisoner, and I think with this is enough.