The two presidents greeted one another, smiling broadly, before dozens of flashing cameras in Havana’s Revolutionary Palace on Monday.
The visit was historic. Though it was President Obama’s fourth meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro, it was the first time a U.S. president had visited Cuba in nearly a century.
After greeting one another, the presidents took time to field questions from reporters. And that’s when things got interesting.
When asked by a reporter about the Cuban government’s policy of arresting dissidents, Castro sounded shocked, even hurt. He promised swift action.
“Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately,” Castro responded. “Just mention the list. What political prisoners?”
To his chagrin, human rights organizations pounced. Rosters were produced and disseminated over social media and email in a manner of minutes, according to the New York Times.
Castro changed course. “It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners,” he lectured.
Castro had no other way to respond. If you’re wondering what human rights in Cuba look like, it’s not pretty. Humans Rights Watch offers a tidy summary of Cuba’s violations. The report consists of the usual nefarious activities oppressive governments employ to subjugate people who don’t toe the line.
Beatings. Public shaming. Termination of employment. Imprisonment.
Castro, not to be undone after being exposed, tried to turn the tables by criticizing the ostensible lack of access to education and health care in the United States.
It was a clunky bit of sophistry, but President Obama missed the opportunity to highlight the distinction.
“The goal of the human rights dialogue is not for the United States to dictate to Cuba how to govern themselves,” said Obama, who to his credit did press Castro to field questions from the press. “Hopefully, we can learn from each other.”
Mr. Obama, who announced in 2014 he would take steps to begin normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, said he came to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”
I’d only point out that the Cold War was not won by appeasing forces of oppression. It was won by condemning them.
At least we were left with this priceless moment, when Castro apparently attempts to raise Obama’s hand in the revolutionary fist: