President Barack Obama was reminded Monday of an inconvenient truth surrounding his efforts to build closer economic and diplomatic ties with Cuba: Raul Castro is still president of the Caribbean nation.
Obama’s outreach there is another example of how he is willing to bet his legacy on long-term plays. But in the meantime, he has to be willing to absorb some political body blows. The brother of longtime Cuban strongman Fidel Castro used his lengthy prepared remarks during a joint press conference to criticize the United States on a range of issues, including its health care system and what he called its uneven criticism of human rights abuses around the world.
"There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away since we hold different concepts on many subjects, such as political systems, democracy, the exercise of human rights, social justice, international relations and world peace and stability," Castro said, limiting the White House's attempts to cast Obama's visit as an upbeat event.
"We defend human rights," he said. "In our view, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent, and universal."
"Actually, we find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and ensure the right to health care, education, Social Security … equal pay and the rights of children," Castro said. "We oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights. Cuba has much to say and show on this issue."
Castro assured Obama that his regime will move forward with the ongoing dialogue about human rights. But no, the Cuban leader wasn’t finished.
After saying U.S. and Cuban officials are "working to identify possible commercial operations that could materialize," Castro said a "still-restrictive framework of existing regulations" limit the potential of the fledgling business partnership.
"Much more could be done if the U.S. blockade were lifted," said Castro, referring to a decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
He lauded the Obama administration's efforts up to a point, but then turned around and called them "insufficient."
The administration already has used executive actions to expand U.S.-Cuban business ties. But Congress would have to partially or completely lift the Cold War-era trade blockade.
Obama later called on Congress to do just that -- but signaled that likely will not happen under his watch. “Congress is not as productive as I would like,” he said dryly.
Castro said he and Obama discussed steps to remove remaining trade restrictions, saying "this is essential" because the blockade imposes "negative consequences for both Cuba and other countries."
At times, Obama appeared tense as Castro aired his grievances. He stood stiffly and stared straight ahead, his jaws tightly clenched and his chin protruding. And Obama rarely even glanced to his left, where the Cuban leader was railing against America and, at one point, denied that his government is holding political prisoners.
Obama sought to temper expectations for improving U.S.-Cuban relations, saying things will not be "transformed overnight." The two countries "continue to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights," Obama said.
There was one thing on which the two leaders agreed. The duo used words like “long” and “complex” to describe the path toward fully normalized relations.
Castro, who has said he will leave office in 2018, suggested the countries may never be close allies. He recommended “civilized coexistence,” and that the governments “respect disagreements” between them.
Obama said the two countries will discuss other matters -- especially how to open business channels -- but human rights is “something we’re going to stay on.” He served notice to the 84-year-old Castro that things have to change if the regime hopes to fully benefit from an improved economic relationship with America.
But the message-sending didn’t end there. Obama willingly took on a public relations bruise to deny Castro a longer-term propaganda tool.
As the press conference concluded, Castro attempted to raise Obama’s left arm in an attempt to strike a triumphant pose. But the U.S. president resisted, letting his arm and hand hang rubbery in the elder statesman’s hand.
Social media noticed, with many pouncing on what they saw as Obama’s “limp-arm diplomacy.” Obama's reaction prevented handing Castro an image that could have been plastered on billboards, signs, television ads and other channels by the regime.