HAVANA — In Cuba, just having a press conference is news.
President Barack Obama jokes that he likes press conferences and wants to do more of them, let them go on longer. That tends to be less the case at the White House than abroad, when Obama’s trying to make a point about a repressive regime by turning to the press.
He did it in China in 2013 by giving a New York Times reporter a question to Xi Jinping right after the government in Beijing had kicked out a reporter from the newspaper. He did it in Ethiopia last year when he forced the journalist-jailing prime minister to stand next to him for a long press conference where Obama talked about the country’s record on human rights and held forth on American politics.
Monday afternoon here in Havana, he did it to Raúl Castro, right in the Revolutionary Palace, letting him be pressed with questions for the first time — ever — and joining in himself. And not just that: he had to answer for the political prisoners that the government rounds up almost daily, but denies exist at all.
Cubans watching on state television, which broadcast the whole thing live and in full, have never seen something like this. Neither has the White House press corps. Or anyone who works at the White House.
The awkward photo that ended the event, with Obama looking like he had a limp wrist because he resisted Castro’s attempt to raise their hands together in victory as they walked out of the room, couldn’t change what had happened in what’s likely to be the most important hour of the president’s two-day trip here.
The negotiations went up to the final hours, and came down to White House officials counting on Cubans watching American movies and TV. U.S. officials pressed their Cuba counterparts early Monday morning, according to one American familiar with the discussions, and leveled with them — you’ve seen how this goes: The president finishes speaking and everyone shoots their hands in the air and the president takes a question. It’ll be really embarrassing if your president is just standing there or walks out.
Just before the press conference, reporters were led in for a brief look at the bilateral meeting between the two leaders, the American and Cuban flags hanging behind them, the delegations facing each other on either side. Obama never does a great job of hiding how silly he thinks that kind of access is. Castro seemed to be picking up on that, saying through a translator as they posed for the handshake, “make them happy.”
By the time they moved into the press conference next door, Castro clearly wasn’t happy.
First he stood, eyes blinking as he listened to Obama take several questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta. Then Castro took a long drink of water and coughed theatrically as the reporter, whose father left Cuba, turned to him in Spanish. With a smirk on his face at Acosta’s pronunciation, he leaned into the podium as Acosta asked him about political prisoners.
As Obama continued ticking through his answers, Castro called an aide onto stage, and conferred with him at length. Obama kept answering his question, but his eyes starting to flit to his left.
“Excuse me—” Obama said, his disbelief immediately turning to mocking. White House officials tensed. Castro looked back at Acosta, pretending as if the later question wasn’t for him.
“Second one was to you,” Obama said, prodding him along (and along the way, managing to deftly duck Acosta’s question about why he wasn’t meeting with Fidel Castro on this trip).
“He talked about political prisoners,” Castro said, turning back to Obama, according to the official translation being simultaneously provided.
“Also Trump and Hillary,” Obama said.
“For him or for me?” Castro said, looking at Acosta.
Finally, Castro relented, and asked Acosta to repeat his question about political prisoners, then cutting him off, his right hand chopping in the air.
“Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them. Just mention names,” Castro said. “If we have those political prisoners, they will be released before the night ends.”
Obama looked on with a smile.
Castro remembered the second question, about whether he preferred Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and recovered for a moment: “Well, I cannot vote in the United States,” he said.
The bubble was popped. The reporter for Cuban state television had a question for Obama, but started with one for Castro about what steps he was taking toward improving the relationship.
Castro started to answer, but stopped himself.
“You are making too many questions to me,” he said. “I think questions should be directed to President Obama.”
So Obama took another. He turned to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. He answered her quickly about the future of the embargo, which he said is “going to end. When I can’t be entirely be sure. But I believe it will end and the path that we’re on will continue after my time in office.” He talked about his faith in what would come from more person-to-person contact between Cubans and Americans.
Then, playing media moderator, he passed it to Castro, who was fiddling with papers the whole time, except for another theatrical long drink of water.
“Now I’m done, but I think Senor Presidente, I think Andrea had a question for you,” Obama said.
He turned to Mitchell.
“He did say he was going to take one question, and I said I was going to take two,” Obama said, before pivoting to Castro. “She’s one of our most esteemed journalists in America, I’m sure she’d appreciate just a short answer.”
Doing his best impression of Dick Dastardly from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Castro rubbed his hands together, rolling his “r”s as he said Andrea, several times.
“I know that if you’ll stay here, you’ll make 500 questions. I said I was going to answer one and I’m going to answer one and a half,” he said.
He had his answer about her human rights question all prepared: “I’m going to make the question to you now,” he said.
There are “61 instruments of human rights,” Castro said, quoting a number that he seems to have created on his own.
“What country complies with them all? Do you know how many? I know. None. None whatsoever. Some countries comply some rights, others comply with others,” Castro said, by way of defense. “Of these 61 instruments, Cuba has complied with 47 issues.”
He turned it into a chance to beat up on the United States. In Cuba, they think universal health care is a human right, Castro said. Every child is born in a hospital, no matter where they’re from, or who their parents are, he added. They believe education for all is a human right, he said. And finally, in a point that got Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett nodding at communications director Jen Psaki, saying he has a point, Castro said that he thinks equal pay for women is a human right too.
Human rights issues, he said, “should not be politicized.”
“That is not fair, it’s not correct. I’m not saying it’s not honest, it’s part of confrontations of course,”
Castro checked his watch. There’s a schedule to keep to, Castro said, though his scheduled time with Obama was done until later in the evening, when they’re having their state dinner.
But he returned to the point that had gotten under his skin a few minutes earlier.
“It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners in general,” he said.
Then he looked toward the exit.
“I think this is enough,” Castro said. “We have concluded. Thank you for your participation.”
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