Obama spars with Castro on human rights during historic Cuba visit

By Matt Spetalnick and Frank Jack Daniel HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama pushed Cuba to improve human rights during his historic visit to the Communist-led island on Monday, publicly sparring with President Raul Castro who showed flashes of anger and hit back at U.S. "double standards". In a joint news conference that was tense at times, Obama praised Castro for openly discussing their differences but he said a "full flowering" of the relationship can happen only with progress on the issue of rights. "In the absence of that, I think it will continue to be a very powerful irritant ... America believes in democracy. We believe that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and freedom of religion are not just American values but are universal values," Obama said after talks with Castro, in remarks broadcast live on Cuban state television. The Cuban leader countered that no country meets all international rights but appeared uncomfortable as he made the rare step of taking questions from journalists in a country where the media is state controlled. Obama, the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, agreed in 2014 to improve relations with the former Cold War foe but he is under pressure at home to push Castro's government to allow political dissent and to further open its Soviet-style economy. Opponents say he has given away too much as he improves ties, with too little from Castro in return. Castro, an army general who became president when his ailing older brother Fidel retired in 2008, had never before taken questions from foreign reporters on live Cuban television and was clearly irritated when asked about political prisoners in Cuba, demanding the reporter produce a list of those in jail. "Tell me now. What political prisoners? Give me a name, or the names," Castro said. "And if there are these political prisoners they will be free before nightfall." Cuba says it has no political prisoners and that the dozens listed by dissident groups are instead common criminals. Castro said Cuba has a strong record on rights such as health, access to education and women's equality. His government criticizes the United States on racism, police violence and the use of torture at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. In another awkward moment at the news conference, Castro lifted Obama's arm in the air as if to form a victory salute. Obama resisted, letting his hand hang limp rather than form a fist. TENSION PALPABLE Fumbling with a headset providing translation, the 84-year-old leader scolded reporters when he was asked again about rights, saying he agreed to only take one question. Obama playfully encouraged him to address a second but Castro seemed reluctant as he obliged. "How many countries comply with all 61 human rights? Do you know? I do. None. None," Castro said. As part of the diplomatic breakthrough in 2014, Cuba released 53 prisoners that the U.S. government considered political prisoners. But the dissident Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation says 79 are still behind bars, among them more than 40 held for peaceful political protest. "This list is here if they want to see it," commission leader Elizardo Sanchez said on Monday. His commission's list also includes armed anti-government militants, convicted hijackers, army deserters and spies, but Sanchez said they are considered political because they were denied due process. Obama's ease with reporters' questions contrasted with Castro's manner. With American flags hanging in Revolution Palace, the tension was palpable as Castro declined to call on a slew of Cuban journalists who yearned for the rare chance to ask him questions. Castro offered Cuba's recipe for better relations, saying the United States needs to lift its 54-year-old trade embargo on the island and hand back the Guantanamo Bay base to Cuba. Obama did not respond to the demand on Guantanamo Bay but said he was optimistic about the elimination of economic sanctions against Cuba. "The embargo’s going to end. When, I can’t be entirely sure," Obama said. Obama has urged Congress to rescind the economic embargo but has been rejected by the Republican leadership. Thwarted so far, Obama has instead used his executive authority to take a series of steps loosening restrictions on trade and travel. For decades, Obama's trip would have been unthinkable. It became possible after secret talks led to the 2014 agreement to normalize relations. A series of business deals timed to coincide with the visit appeared to show the strategy was bearing some commercial fruit. Ahead of the meeting with Castro, Obama announced a deal that Google would provide more Wi-Fi and broadband access on the island. Western Union announced it was set to expand in Cuba and online hotel bookings company Priceline Group made Cuban rooms available to U.S. customers. Starwood Hotels on Saturday became the first U.S. company to sign a hotel deal in Cuba since 1959 revolution. Google said later its efforts were in the "early stages." Obama hopes that commercial deals between U.S. companies and Cuba will help protect his policy shift on Cuba even if a Republican wins the U.S. presidential election in November. (Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Daniel Trotta and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Kieran Murray and Alistair Bell)