U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro held historic talks in Havana on Monday, discussing enduring disagreements over Cuba’s human rights record and Washington’s trade embargo as the two countries took another stride away from Cold War era conflicts. Obama arrived in Cuba recently this past week for the first visit by a U.S. president in almost 90 years by Calvin Coolidge, achieving a goal for his final year in office that became possible after secret talks led to a 2014 agreement to normalize relations. 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 government to allow political dissent and to further open its Soviet-style state-run economy.
Obama began his first full day in the symbolic heart of Cuba’s Communist system, starting in Revolution Square, where for decades Raul Castro’s brother, Fidel Castro, led million-strong rallies against the evils of U.S. “imperialism.”
Obama laid a wreath at the memorial to independence hero Jose Marti, overlooked by a huge metal portrait of legendary rebel fighter Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Marti was a 19th century poet and writer whose activism helped spur Cuba’s freedom from Spain and whose legacy was later adopted by Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries as a symbol of anti-imperialism.
Obama then moved on to the infamous Palace of the Revolution, where the Castros have led Cuba’s resistance to U.S. pressure going back decades. A U.S. presidential visit to the inner sanctum of Cuban power was unthinkable before Obama and Raul Castro’s discussions in December 2014.
Obama and Castro have met three times before, but Monday’s meeting was set to be the most substantial as the two men move on from last year’s restoration of diplomatic ties and attempt to rebuild the bilateral relationship. Inside the palace, Castro and Obama stood shoulder to shoulder while a military band played the Cuban national anthem and then the U.S. anthem, and then they walked past a military honor guard.
The Cuban President was all smiles as he greeted Obama. But he has said Cuba will not waver from its fifty-seven year old revolution. Government officials say the United States needs to end its economic embargo and return the Guantanamo Bay naval base to Cuba before the two countries can enjoy normal relations. Obama has urged Congress to rescind the fifty-four year old embargo but has been rejected by the Republican leadership. He now has both Democratic and Republican elected officials with him on his Cuba trip and hopes Congress may act after the Nov. 8 presidential election.