Obama Will Meet Dissidents, Despite Awkwardness With Castro

President Obama will meet with Cuban dissidents today in an event long anticipated by human rights supporters.

Obama’s final day in Cuba marks a historic visit, but one peppered with awkward moments.

According to WHTR, Catholic activist Dagoberto Valdes said that the situation has been challenging for both President Obama and Cuba. He wants to tell Mr. Obama that “we Cubans are the protagonists of our history.”

President Obama would agree with this, having made this very same point on Monday during a press conference with Cuban President Raul Castro. An article in the Boston Globe described the exchange with Castro as “frank and sometimes awkward.”

Human rights was a hot topic during Monday’s 55-minute news conference. Obama addressed a question from Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News correspondent, and then urged Castro to follow up.

“It’s up to you. She’s one of our most esteemed journalists in America, and I’m sure she’d appreciate just a short, brief answer.”

Castro did respond to Mitchell’s question about human rights, but scolded her that it was unfair.

“It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners.”

But in what seemed a somewhat defensive answer, Castro asked the press to be more specific.

“Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately. Just mention the list. What political prisoners?”

A list was quickly produced, via emails and other sources provided to the press. This was clearly the moment that groups like the Ladies In White had been waiting for. Indeed, as an Inquisitr article shows, at least 60 of the human rights protesters had been arrested on the day of Obama’s arrival in Cuba.

The Boston Globe article went on to describe how “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.”

Obama reassured Castro that the United States was not trying to interfere with Cuban government.

“I affirm that Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation. 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.”

The President of the United States did confirm that he would be holding a private meeting with Cuban dissidents today, his last day in the country.

The press conference ended on a warm note, despite the awkwardness on both sides. Castro made a gracious and optimistic statement.

“We agree that a long and complex path still lies ahead. 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.”

Obama’s speech was televised in Cuba today. He spent a few minutes condemning today’s bombing in Brussels. He is receiving some criticism for not abandoning his current mission to focus on Brussels.

The Guardian related how Obama told the Cuban people he believed in them, and he had come to “bury the last remnant of the cold war.”

“I’m hopeful because I believe that the Cuban people are as innovative as any people in the world. In the United States we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build. It’s called Miami.”

He went on to cite the similarities between the two countries: Pride, patriotism, history and love of art. He mentioned Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Robinson and baseball, Muhammad Ali and boxing. He described the two countries as, “estranged brothers.”

In a piece by reporter Jonathan Watts for the Guardian, Obama’s meeting with Castro was “naive.” This is according to Ailer Gonzalez. She is the wife of Antonio Rodiles, the founder of Citizen Demand for Another Cuba, one dissident meeting with Obama today.

“So far he has not clearly condemned human rights abuses in Cuba, despite brutal beatings and arrests of many of us at the demonstration on Sunday. Following this insipid direction I expect in his speech he will talk only in general terms about freedom. It will be vague, maybe even poetic, but there will be nothing of significance. We need stronger action, not weak words.”

Obama concluded his speech, suggesting that the past be left behind. He gave a nudge to young people to move forward, a hint that they must walk toward democracy, adding, “Sometimes history starts small.”

[Photo via Rebecca Blackwell/AP Images]