HAVANA – Brushing off decades of distrust, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands Monday in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution, a remarkable moment for two countries working to put the bitterness of their Cold War-era enmity behind them.
Obama and Castro stood together as a Cuban military band played the national anthems of Cuba and the United States — stunning sounds in a country where resistance to the U.S. has been part of the national mission for decades. Greeting each other warmly, the two leaders inspected an honor guard before sitting down in front of American and Cuban flags.
Whether Obama and Castro could use the meeting, one of the first since Cuba’s 1959 revolution and the only one in Cuba, to further the ambitious diplomatic experiment they started 15 months ago was an open question, infusing Obama’s historic trip to Cuba with uncertainty and tension for both governments.
For Obama, there was no better place than Havana to show that engagement can do more than isolation to bring about change on the communist island. Yet for the Cubans, the glaring question is whether their own government is ready to prove the ambitious diplomatic opening is more than just talk.
American companies, eager for opportunities in Cuba, were wasting no time. Obama announced that tech giant Google had struck a deal to expand Wi-Fi and broadband Internet on the island 90 miles south of Florida.
Outside the palace in Havana’s sprawling Revolution Square, Obama posed for a photo in front of a giant sculpture of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, creating an indelible image sure to reverberate in Cuba and beyond. The revolutionary leader was once one of Fidel Castro’s top lieutenants, his face an iconic symbol of Cuba’s revolution that is revered by some but reviled by others.
Paying tribute to another Cuban independence hero, Obama adjusted a wreath at the foot of a 59-foot statue of Jose Marti, calling his trip “a historic moment.”
“It is a great honor to pay tribute to Jose Marti, who gave his life for independence of his homeland,” Obama wrote in the guestbook. “His passion for liberty, freedom, and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today.”
The long-awaited meeting between Obama and Castro was one of the most scrutinized moments of Obama’s 2½-day trip to Cuba, the first presidential visit in nearly 90 years.
Joining Obama and Castro was Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, considered Raul Castro’s possible successor when the president steps down as promised in 2018.
Obama came to Havana hoping his visit would spur Cuba to offer gestures of good faith and meaningful change, undermining critics who accuse Obama of kowtowing to an authoritarian government. In the last year-plus, Obama has taken sweeping steps to lift decades-old U.S. restrictions on travel and commerce, and American businesses have eagerly followed suit.
As Obama’s visit opened, Western Union announced expanded processing for remittances, and hotel chains Starwood and Marriott said they’d received U.S. permission to operate here. Google planned to open a cutting-edge center at a Havana art studio offering free Internet at speeds nearly 70 times faster than what Cuban citizens can currently access.
To the dismay of Obama and his critics, reciprocal steps by Cuba have been in short supply.
Since succeeding his brother, Fidel, in 2008, Castro has orchestrated economic and social reforms with broad-based impact, though they appear slow to materialize. Not only are hundreds of thousands of Cubans now able to pursue free enterprise, but restrictions on cellphones and Internet have been eased and citizens feel more comfortable discussing Cuba’s problems.
Yet Castro hasn’t budged on changing Cuba’s single-party system or easing strict limits on the media, assembly and political dissent. Repeatedly, his government has chided Obama for saying he wanted to empower Cubans.
None of that has dissuaded Obama, who insists that any intransigence by Cuba’s government only proves why Cubans will be better off when they’re intimately exposed to American values.
On his first full day in Cuba, Obama also planned an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs aimed at championing Cuba’s fledgling private sector. He was to be feted in the evening at a state dinner, an honor illustrating just how far the U.S. and Cuba have come despite their deep ideological differences.
“We felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change,” Obama told ABC News as he started his trip. “Particularly because this has been welcomed by the Cuban people with enormous popularity.”
Obama pushed Cuba to improve its record on democracy and human rights as he met with Castro on a historic visit, but Castro responded by decrying U.S. “double standards.”
Obama said the two had “frank and candid” discussions about human rights as well as areas of cooperation. Castro said they could achieve much better relations if the United States lifted its 54-year-old trade embargo on the island.
“We continue to have serious differences, including on democracy and human rights,” Obama said at a joint news conference, where Castro made the rare step of taking questions from journalists.
In response to a question on political prisoners, Castro angrily demanded to be shown a list of such detainees, reflecting Cuba’s position that it holds no such prisoners.
“Give me a list of those political prisoners right now and if the list exists they will be released before the night is through,” Castro said.
The two leaders held face-to-face meetings a day after Obama arrived for the first visit by a U.S. president in almost 90 years. The trip would for decades have been unthinkable but became possible after secret talks led to a 2014 agreement to normalize relations between the two Cold War-era foes.
The opening ended decades of U.S. efforts to force Cuba to change through isolation. But Obama is under pressure from critics at home to push Castro’s communist government to allow political dissent and further open its Soviet-style economy.
But Obama and Castro vowed Monday to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the U.S. president called a “new day” for the long bitterly divided neighbors.
Castro acknowledged there were still “profound” differences over Cuba’s human rights situation and the decades-old, crippling U.S. economic embargo on the island.
In a sometimes comic, sometimes tetchy press conference — which in an extremely rare move was carried live on Cuban television — Castro refused even to acknowledge that his government holds political prisoners.
However, the mere fact that the joint press conference took place in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution — after the leaders met for more than two hours — demonstrated how much has changed.
Obama hailed a “new day” — a “nuevo dia,” as he said — in relations between the former Cold War foes.
And Castro suggested the former enemies take inspiration from U.S. 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 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.
Trying to draw a line under past heavy-handed U.S. intervention in the island’s affairs, Obama vowed that “Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation.”
He also said, without making any promises on timing, 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 he also appeared determined to move beyond the obstacles that have long made relations with Cuba a diplomatic dead end.
“Fortunately, we don’t have to swim with sharks to achieve the goals you and I have set forth,” he joked, referring to Nyad’s feat.
In only his third formal meeting with Castro, Obama was greeted by a military band that played the Cuban and the U.S. national anthems.
Under pressure back home to show that his scrapping of deeply rooted U.S. hostility to the Castro regime will pay off, Obama then sat with the Cuban president against a backdrop of tall tropical plants.
On Tuesday, he was to give an address carried live on Cuban state television, and then attend a baseball game between the national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays, before flying out.
Obama’s visit has raised hopes among struggling Cubans that decades of economic and political stasis may be coming to an end.
But the brief detention of dozens of pro-democracy protesters hours before Obama’s arrival Sunday served as a stark reminder of the regime’s iron grip on power.
And despite the excitement among ordinary Cubans, officials appeared to be taking pains to give a restrained welcome.
Castro did not greet Obama at the airport Sunday, sending his foreign minister instead, and a heavy police presence has ensured that Cubans have no chance of gathering spontaneously at any of Obama’s appearances around the city.
“I think Raul does not want a warm relationship with the U.S. He sees it in limited terms for the moment — tourism revenue and remittances plus the changes to the sanctions,” said Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba who teaches international relations at Boston University.
Obama’s administration is betting that forcing Cuba to open up diplomatically, as well as a gradual relaxation of the embargo, will promote democratic change. But Obama is defending himself from critics who say he has given away too much.
Arriving in Havana, Obama admitted change is not going to happen “overnight.”
“Change is going to happen here and I think that Raul Castro understands that,” he told ABC News.
“Although we still have significant differences around human rights and individual liberties inside of Cuba, we felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change.”