Western journalists covering President Barack Obama's historic trip to Cuba put Cuban president Raul Castro on the spot Monday, forcing Castro to respond to questions about human rights abuses and political prisoners.
Obama's trip to Cuba — the first visit by a sitting U.S. president since 1928 — is part of a dramatic shift in U.S. policy that began in 2014, when the two longtime adversaries announced they would open reciprocal embassies and move to normalize relations, as Reuters reported at the time.
But the opening to Cuba has been uneven, as U.S. policy continues to favor Cuban refugees, the Cuban regime continues to censor political opposition, and international human rights watchdogs continue to press for release of political prisoners.
"Human rights should not be politicized," Castro told reporters Monday, directly echoing Chinese diplomats who have used the same phrase to fend off the same concerns earlier this month in Geneva.
"We must maintain the credibility and authority of the international human rights mechanism and reverse the current trend to politicize human rights," Fu Cong said after the release of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein's annual report, Xinhuanet.com reported.
Back in Cuba, Castro seemed flummoxed by questions about political prisoners. “What political prisoners?” Castro said. “Give me their names.” He then offered to release the prisoners today if given specific names.
"In a country where publicly questioning the authority of Castro and his brother and predecessor Fidel is unthinkable for most, and where the docile state-run media almost always toe the party line, the live broadcast was must-see TV," Canada's National Post reported. "Some also marveled at tough questioning of President Barack Obama, simply unaccustomed to seeing any leader challenged in such a way."
“This is pure history and I never thought I’d see something like this,” Marlene Pino, a 47-year-old engineer, told the Post. “It’s difficult to quickly assimilate what’s happening here. For me it’s extraordinary to see this.”
Prior to Obama's visit, Amnesty International placed itself in the paradoxical position of calling for an end to the embargo against Cuba while calling for greater scrutiny and dialogue over human rights abuses. In part, Amnesty argued that lifting the travel restrictions would allow for greater transparency.
The embargo on trade with and travel to Cuba has been in place since the 1960s and has long been viewed as a tool to keep pressure on the regime to liberalize, but the cross-examination of Castro by Western journalists does seem to lend plausibility to the Amnesty position on opening up the island nation to scrutiny.
“This is a critical and historic opportunity for President Obama to raise key human rights issues directly with Presidents Castro and Marcri. Moreover, his visit could open the door for future visits from international human rights organizations and the lifting of a needless economic embargo that bars Cubans from receiving basic necessities,” said Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for the Americas, in a statement.
“Politically motivated arrests have been increasing both in Cuba and Argentina in recent years, and President Obama must stress that the freedom to peacefully protest the government must be protected.”