HAVANA (AP) — President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro tussled Monday over differences on human rights and democracy but pledged to keep working on a new path forward between their two countries in an stunning diplomatic display.
Obama, midway through his history-making trip to Cuba, succeeded in getting Cuba’s leader to submit to questioning by reporters, a routine occurrence for U.S. presidents but an anomaly in a communist country where the media are tightly controlled. Though Castro’s answers were far from forthcoming, the mere occurrence of the news conference was significant in that way. Asked by an American television reporter about political prisoners in Cuba, Castro seemed oblivious, first saying he couldn’t hear the question, then asking whether it was directed to him or Obama. Eventually he pushed back, saying if the journalist could offer up names of anyone allegedly imprisoned, ‘‘they will be released before tonight ends.’’
‘‘What political prisoners? Give me a name or names,’’ Castro said. He added later, ‘‘It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners in general.’’
After responding to a handful of questions, Castro ended the news conference abruptly, declaring, ‘‘I think this is enough.’’
Cuba is criticized for briefly detaining demonstrators thousands of times a year but has drastically reduced its practice of handing down long prison sentences for crimes human rights groups consider to be political. Cuba released dozens of political prisoners as part of its deal to normalize relations with Cuba, and Amnesty International said in its 2015/2016 report that it knew of no prisoners of conscience in Cuba.
It’s extremely rare for Raul Castro to preside at a news conference, although he has sometimes taken questions from reporters spontaneously when the mood strikes. He’s known as a much more cautious and reluctant public speaker than his loquacious older brother Fidel, who was given to talking for hours at a time and often directly with journalists.
There are a handful of independent online outlets, though more critical ones like dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez’s 14ymedio are blocked on the island.