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Obama Pushes Castro on Human Rights During Joint Conference

03-20-2016
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President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro took questions over human rights and the U.S. economic embargo during an unprecedented joint news conference Monday, putting the Cuban leader in the hotspot in front of a public not used seeing to their leader being questioned.

Obama continued to press the Communist leader on human rights issues.

"We continue, as President Castro indicated, to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights," said Obama said. The U.S. president planned to meet with Cuban dissidents Tuesday.

But when an American reporter asked about political prisoners in Cuba, Castro pushed back, denying such prisoners even existed. 

"What political prisoners? Give me a name or names," Castro said.

Castro also blasted the long-held American embargo, which he called "the most important obstacle" to his country's economic development. Obama has called on Congress to lift the blockade, but lawmakers have not held a vote on the repeal.
 
"The embargo is going to end," Obama said. "When, I can't be entirely sure, but I believe it will end."

Despite the tensions, Obama heralded a "new day" in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, saying "part of normalizing relations means we discuss these differences directly."

Earlier, with his hand placed on his heart Obama began his first full day in Cuba at Revolution Square, listening to a band as it played the American National Anthem. He is hoping his historic visit will push relations between the two countries forward.

The president placed a wreath at the memorial to Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. At 11:30 AM, Obama ventured to Havana's Palace of the Revolution for the one-on-one meeting with Cuban President Raoul Castro.

While the president does not expect immediate political change, he knows Castro's economic reforms have opened the door to American investment and opportunity on the island nation.

"It's a historic opportunity to forge new agreements and commercial deals, to build new ties between our two peoples and for me to lay out my vision for a future that's brighter than our past," the president told staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

U.S. companies are eager to do business with Cuba's 11 million people, and Google will be among the first to take advantage of the changed relationship.

Obama has announced the technology giant will expand Wi-Fi and broadband Internet access on the island. So far, only about 5 percent of Cubans enjoy such access.

But only hours before the president arrived in Cuba and toured old Havana with his family, police clashed with human rights protestors. At least 50 demonstrators were arrested.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz tweeted support for the Cuban people and criticized the visit.

"Political prisoners languishing in dungeons across the island will hear this message: Nobody has your back. You're alone with your tormentors. The world has forgotten about you," he wrote in Politico.

"There will be no mojitos at the U.S. Embassy for them," he continued. "Raul Castro denies their very existence."

GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said he supports a new relationship with Cuba, but suggests President Castro should have greeted the president when he arrived.

"There was nobody there to greet him. Folks, what are we doing, what are we doing? Now here's how a thing like that is supposed to work. Number one, he has his people call up and say, 'Who is going to be greeting the president?' If they say nobody, you don't go until somebody's there because you don't want to look like a fool," Trump insisted.

But not everyone is critical. American Alan Gross, who was released from a Cuban prison a year ago, told CBN News' Gary Lane the president's visit is a courageous move.

"You sat in a prison cell for five years. Is it the right course?" Lane asked.

"Well, absolutely," Gross replied. "If we had had diplomatic relations 55 years ago, 50 years ago, 45 years ago, six years ago,  I might not have had to forfeit five years of my life."

"The whole idea of constructive engagement helps to avoid circumstances like this," he continued. "And people who are critical of the process that we've recently gone through really need to take a look at that."

Obama's visit will conclude Tuesday with a televised speech to the Cuban people, attendance at a baseball game, and a possible meeting with political dissidents.

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