US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro have vowed to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US President called a “new day” for the long bitterly divided neighbours.
Obama, the first US president to visit Cuba in 88 years, hailed a “new day” — a “nuevo dia,” as he said – in relations between the former Cold War foes.
Castro acknowledged there were still “profound” differences over Cuba’s human rights situation and the decades-old, crippling US economic embargo on the island.
Despite differences, a joint press conference of the two leaders was held in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution and was carried live on Cuban television, which was an extremely rare move.
Obama vowed that “Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation.”
The US leader also said that “the embargo is going to end.”
He insisted that Washington was not going to give up pressing for political freedoms in Cuba, where the Communist Party controls politics, the media and the economy.
The United States “will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy,” Obama said.
But the US president also appeared determined to move beyond the obstacles that have long made relations with Cuba a diplomatic dead end.
Castro refused to acknowledge that his government held political prisoners.
“After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will all released before the night ends,” Castro said in a sarcasm-laden response to a US journalist’s question.
And Castro suggested the former enemies take inspiration from US endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who in 2013 managed on her fifth attempt to become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.
“If she can do it, we can do it too,” Castro told journalists after the leaders met for over two hours in the palace — the nerve center of the communist government that has ruled Cuba since the takeover by Raul’s brother Fidel Castro in 1959.
Obama too replied to Castro’s comment jokingly and said, “Fortunately, we don’t have to swim with sharks to achieve the goals you and I have set forth”.
In only his third formal meeting with Castro, Obama was greeted by a military band that played the Cuban and the US national anthems.
(With inputs from agencies)