HAVANA — President Obama stood beside President Raúl Castro on Monday and declared a “new day” of openness between the United States and Cuba, but old grievances and disputes over human rights marred a groundbreaking meeting and underscored lingering impediments to a historic thaw.
The two presidents, meeting at the Revolutionary Palace for the first such official contact between their two governments in more than a half-century, engaged in a frank and at times awkward exchange with each other and reporters.
Obama at turns prodded Castro to submit to questions during an extraordinary 55-minute news conference.
Standing at lecterns in a cavernous granite-walled hall in front of Cuban and US flags, the two leaders traded criticism of each other’s countries even as both said they were committed to continuing on the path to normalizing relations.
“Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately,” Castro said, asked by a reporter about dissidents his government has arrested. “Just mention the list. What political prisoners?”
Human rights groups quickly produced rosters, distributed over e-mail and social media, of people they said had been imprisoned in Cuba for demonstrating against or otherwise challenging Castro’s government.
Castro sought to turn the human rights criticism on the United States, arguing that countries that do not provide universal health care, education, and equal pay are in no position to lecture Cuba. He also said Guantánamo should be returned to Cuba.
“It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners,” Castro said.
Obama said he had pressed the Cuban president in their meeting over Cuba’s treatment of dissidents and reaffirmed that he would meet with some dissidents privately Tuesday. But he also assured Castro that the United States had no intention of dictating his country’s future.
“I affirm that Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation,” Obama said. “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,” Obama added.
The president went a step further, in comments likely to be seized upon by critics of his push to pursue an opening with Cuba, conceding that the United States must face up to the criticisms Castro unleashed.
“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 or discussion as well,” Obama said.
The news conference was a striking display of warmth on a day that was dominated by the symbolism of the first tentative openings between Cuba and the United States since the Cold War.
Obama said he expected to see the embargo lifted, something Castro called “the most important obstacle to our economic development and the well-being of the Cuban people.”
“We agree that a long and complex path still lies ahead,” Castro said, smiling warmly at Obama at times, even when the American president teased his Cuban host about the Castro family’s penchant for stem-winding speeches. “What is most important is that we have started taking the first steps to build a new type of relationship, one that has never existed between Cuba and the United States.”
There were awkward moments as well, with both presidents pushing each other outside their comfort zones. Obama, who was determined to mark the occasion with a news conference — something Castro seldom if ever does — prodded the Cuban leader to submit to journalists’ questions.
After Obama finished answering a question from Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News correspondent, he urged Castro to do so as well.
“It’s up to you,” Obama told Castro. “She’s one of our most esteemed journalists in America, and I’m sure she’d appreciate just a short, brief answer.”
Castro did answer Mitchell’s query about human rights, scolding her that the question was unfair.
At the conclusion of the news conference, the two presidents joined hands in what appeared to be a cross between a handshake and the raising of a revolutionary fist; Obama held out his arm awkwardly and it ended up as neither.
Obama began his day at the memorial to the Cuban journalist and poet Jose Marti, whose ideals are invoked with zeal in Miami and Havana.
A Cuban military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” under a billowing Cuban flag as the US president and a Cuban Politburo member appeared side by side, flanked in the distance by huge sculptured portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the revolutionaries who were intimates of Fidel Castro.
During his carefully stage-managed visit this week, Obama does not plan to meet with Fidel Castro, 89, the former president who is Raùl’s older brother.
In Havana on Monday, many Cubans still seemed uncertain about whether they had permission to try to see Obama, never mind express a point of view. Cubans all over the city seemed to be constantly asking where Obama would be.
In Parque Central in Havana, Obama’s visit touched off talk of politics, freedom, race, and the scene of a US president at Revolution Plaza near an image of Che Guevara.
“I see the Cubans in the United States talking bad about Obama because he was standing with the image of Che behind him,” said Alfredo Calderon, 83, a retired musician who now works as a custodian. “I don’t see it as bad.”
He continued: “I have to admit, I am 83 years old and I have seen a lot happen. I did not think I would see that.”
In a nation that stifles dissent, the men in the square were quick to shout out the kinds of things they hope Obama will bring to Cuba. “Freedom of speech!” one man shouted. “Freedom of expression!” another echoed. They shook their heads in agreement.
“We want change,” said Angel Maturrell, a small-business owner. “Change. Change. Change. All kinds. Any kind. We are tired of waiting.”