President Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro continuing to work at thawing relations between the two countries. Mr. Obama smiled broadly during a brief photo opportunity before the meeting with Mr. Castro, who said with a laugh that the American president, far taller, towered over him. White House officials confirm that the two leaders discussed the recent visits of Pope Francis, who helped reopen relations between the two nations. Mr. Obama highlighted efforts he intends to take to further improve ties and to help the Cuban people, the White House said.
Following last December’s announcement to restore diplomatic ties between the two countries, the two leaders spoke by phone for roughly 45 minutes. The two spoke again in April in advance of their historic meeting during the Summit of the Americas in Panama. That meeting was the first time a U.S. president has ever sat down as part of a bilateral meeting with a Cuban president since the revolution. The two leaders spoke two weeks ago, in advance of the Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the United States, and following the Obama administration announcement of new regulatory changes, which allowed for more travel and U.S. business on the island.
The president, as he always does, reaffirmed our commitment to seeing the Cuban government doing a better job of not only respecting but also actively protecting the human rights of the Cuban people,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.
The next steps appear to rest largely with Mr. Castro, an 84-year-old Communist patriarch who has shown little appetite in his twilight years for embracing the kind of bold political changes that might threaten his government’s grip on power. In his own speech before the General Assembly on Monday, Mr. Castro said relations between Cuba and the United States could not return to normal until the United States lifted its 53-year trade embargo.
The Cuban president reiterated that the “embargo that has caused damages and hardships to the Cuban people and affects the interests of American citizens must be lifted and the territory occupied by the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo should be returned to Cuba,” Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parilla told reporters. There are contentious disputes over mutual claims for economic reparations, Cuba’s insistence on an end to the 53-year-old trade embargo and American calls for Cuba to improve on human rights and democracy.
Obama was flanked during Tuesday’s meeting by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power. Castro was joined by Rodríguez Parilla and other aides and officials from his country. In August, the American flag was raised over the U.S. Embassy in Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. In July, Cuban officials inaugurated their embassy in Washington. The U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote for the 24th time to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Of the 193-nation assembly, last year 188 countries voted for the nonbinding resolution, with only the United States and Israel voting against it.