Obama spars with Castro on human rights during historic Cuba visit

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Obama in Cuba: "It Is Wonderful to Be Here"

HAVANA, March 21 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama pushed Cuba to improve its record on human rights and sparred with President Raul Castro during a historic visit to the Communist-ruled island on Monday, while Castro hit back by decrying U.S. "double standards."

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Human rights remained an impediment to strengthening ties with Cuba despite the rapprochement reached by the two leaders in December 2014, Obama said, adding a "full flowering" of the relationship could happen only with progress on the issue.

"In the absence of that, I think it will continue to be a very powerful irritant," Obama said at a sometimes tense joint news conference that was broadcast live on Cuban state television. Castro appeared at times uncomfortable and showed flashes of anger as he made the rare step of taking questions from journalists.

Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years, is under pressure from critics at home to push Castro's government to allow political dissent and to further open its Soviet-style economy. Some opponents of the visit say he has already given away too much as he improves ties, with too little from Cuba in return.

At Monday's news conference, which followed talks between the two leaders, Castro responded sharply to the pressure over his record on rights, saying the U.S. stance reflected a double standard as a country that also violated human rights.

He said no country met all international rights agreements, and that Cuba was strong on many areas such as health, access to education and women's equality.

"Let's work so that everybody respects all the human rights," he said. Cuba frequently criticizes the United States on subjects such as racism, violence and the prison the United States maintains at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Asked by a journalist about Cuba's detention of political dissidents, Castro demanded to see a list of such detainees, implying that Cuba held none.

"What political prisoners? Give me a name, or the names, so that when this meeting is over they can give me a list with the prisoners. And if there are these political prisoners they will be free before nightfall," he said, glaring at the reporter.

He offered Cuba's recipe for better relations - saying the two countries could achieve much better ties if the United States lifted its 54-year-old trade embargo on the island and handed back the Guantanamo base to Cuba.

For decades, Obama's trip would have been unthinkable. It became possible after secret talks led to a 2014 agreement to normalize relations between the two Cold War-era foes.

The White House had pushed for a joint press conference between Obama and Castro for some time, in line with U.S. practice on other foreign trips, but the Castro government resisted. On Monday, whether the two leaders would take questions at all was not clear up until they appeared before journalists.

When the question period began, Obama's ease with the format contrasted with Castro's uncomfortable manner. Tension could be felt in the room as Castro declined to call on a slew of Cuban journalists who wanted to take advantage of the rare chance to ask him questions.

Obama said his counterpart had only agreed to answer one question, but he playfully encouraged him to address a second; Castro seemed reluctant as he obliged.

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Obama spars with Castro on human rights during historic Cuba visit
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to cheering fans as he arrives for a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The crowd roared as President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro entered the stadium and walked toward their seats in the VIP section behind home plate. It's the first game featuring an MLB team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played in the country in 1999. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Cuban President Raul Castro (R) raises US President Barack Obama's hand during a joint press conference at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized. AFP PHOTO/STR / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) while acknowledging members of Congress that are attending a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive to the state dinner at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and Castro vowed 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. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque / AFP / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks with Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel ahead of the state dinner at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed 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. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque / AFP / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gestures during an entrepreneurship panel discussion in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed 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. AFP PHOTO/Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks during an entrepreneurship panel discussion in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed 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. AFP PHOTO/RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: The Presidential motorcade carries U.S. President Obama from the Cuban State Council following a joint press conference on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama, who is on a 48 hour trip to Cuba, is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in almost 90 years.(Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro hold a joint press conference at the Cuban State Council, on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama, who is on a 48 hour trip to Cuba, is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in almost 90 years. (Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Cuban President Raul Castro delivers a statement alongside U.S. President Barack Obama at the Palacio de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, March 21, 2016. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement alongside Cuban President Raul Castro at the Palacio de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, March 21, 2016. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama stands near the Jose Marti memorial after taking part in a wreath laying ceremony in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/LatinContent/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C-L) and Cuban President Raul Castro (C-R) meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: President Barack Obama stands with Salvador Valdez Mesa, Vice President of the Council of Ministry, as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) listens to the US national anthem next to the US delegation at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. Obama, meeting Castro for only the third time for formal talks, was the first US president in Cuba since 1928. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama walks up the stairs of the Palacio de la Revolucion to meet Cuban President Raul Castro on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, attends a State Dinner hosted by Cuban President Raul Castro, right, at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro greet one another at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Obama and Castro will be sitting down for bilateral talks. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle arrive for a state dinner with Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. Obama's visit to Cuba is a crowning moment in his and Castro's bid to normalize ties between two countries that sit just 90 miles apart. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
President Barack Obama greets people in the audience after speaking at an event about entrepreneurship and opportunity for Cubans at La Cerveceria in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. Obama's visit to Cuba is a crowning moment in his and President Raul Castro's bid to normalize ties between two countries that sit just 90 miles apart. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
Cuba's President Raul Casro, left, walks with U.S. President Barack Obama, as they inspect the guard in Revolution Palace, Monday, March 21, 2016. Brushing past profound differences, President Obama and President Castro sat down for a historic meeting, offering critical clues about whether Obama's sharp U-turn in policy will be fully reciprocated. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
President Barack Obama waves to journalists next to a painting of President Abraham Lincoln at Havana's City Museum during a visit to Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
President Barack Obama and his daughter Malia smile as the visit a monument of Cuban independence hero Carlos Manuel de Cespedes during their visit to Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. First lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha stand at left. Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
US President Barack Obama talks to tourists and Cubans at his arrival to the Havana Cathedral, on March 20, 2016. On Sunday, Obama became the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba, touching down in Havana for a landmark trip aimed at ending decades of Cold War animosity. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE / AFP / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (C) walks through the the Museum of the City of Havana during a walking tour of the historic Old Havana guided by city historian Eusebio Leal (R) March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (C), first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia, 17, and Sasha, 14, stop to look at a painting of Abraham Lincoln in the Museum of the City of Havana during a walking tour of the historic Old Havana guided by city historian Eusebio Leal (L) March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama signs a visitors' book at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Jose Marti monument in the Revolution Palace of Havana next to the Vice-President of the Cuban Council Salvador Valdes Mesa (R) on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ STR / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Cuban President Raul Castro pose for photographs after greeting one another at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Obama and Castro will sit down for bilateral talks and will deliver joint statements to the news media. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (L) and Cuban President Raul Castro meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: President Barack Obama and John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, listen to the playing of the U.S. National Anthem as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R), First Lady Michelle Obama (C) and US Charge d'Affaires in Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis meet with US embassy staff in Havana on March 20, 2016. Obama arrived in Cuba to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century-long Cold War conflict that turned the communist island and its giant neighbor into bitter enemies. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Air Force One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The plane transporting US President Barack Obama lands at Jose Marti international airport in Havana on March 20, 2016. Obama, who is on a historic three-day visit to the communist-ruled island, flew to Cuba Sunday to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century-long Cold War standoff, but the arrest of dozens of dissidents just as his plane took off underlined the delicacy of the mission. AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Sasha Obama (R) arrive at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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REVOLUTION SQUARE

Obama began his first full day in Havana in the symbolic heart of Cuba's Communist system, starting in Revolution Square, where for decades Raul Castro's brother, Fidel Castro, led million-strong rallies against the evils of U.S. "imperialism."

Obama laid a wreath at the memorial to independence hero Jose Marti, overlooked by a huge metal portrait of legendary rebel fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"It is a great honor to pay tribute to Jose Marti, who gave his life for independence of his homeland. His passion for liberty, freedom, and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today," Obama wrote in a guest book there.

Marti was a 19th century poet and writer whose activism helped spur Cuba's freedom from Spain and whose legacy was later adopted by Fidel Castro's revolutionaries as a symbol of anti-imperialism.

Obama has urged Congress to rescind the economic embargo but has been rejected by the Republican leadership. He now has both Democratic and Republican elected officials with him on his Cuba trip and hopes Congress may act after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

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Thwarted so far on the embargo, Obama has instead used his executive authority to take a series of steps loosening restrictions on trade and travel with the Caribbean island.

Ahead of his meeting with Castro, Obama announced a deal that Google has reached with the island.

"One of the things that we'll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi and broadband access on the island," Obama told ABC News in an interview that aired on Monday. Google said later it was exploring the possibilities for increasing and improving Internet access in Cuba, but said its efforts were in the "early stages."

Obama and Castro met for half an hour during a regional summit in Panama last April and they also had a brief encounter at Nelson Mandela's funeral in 2013 and at longer meeting at the U.N. General Assembly last September.

Besides meeting Castro, Obama also plans to visit a state-owned micro brewery and attend a state dinner on Monday. On Tuesday, he will deliver a speech on live Cuban television and attend an exhibition game between Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team.

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