Barack Obama, Raul Castro hail 'new day' for US-Cuba relations

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Havana, Mar 22: Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed on Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US 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 US economic embargo on the island.

Also read: President Obama in Cuba: A watershed moment in international relations

Obama, Castro hail 'new day' for US-Cuba

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.

"After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will all released before the night ends," he said in a sarcasm-laden response to a US journalist's question.

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, the first US president to visit Cuba in 88 years, hailed a "new day" -- a "nuevo dia," as he said -- in relations between the former Cold War foes.

Also read: Awkward joint appearance for Castro, Obama

And Castro suggested the former enemies take inspiration from US 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 US intervention in the island's affairs, Obama vowed that "Cuba's destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation."

The US leader 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 the US president 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 US national anthems.

PTI

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