U.S. President Barack Obama hailed a "new day" in relations with Cuba during his historic visit to the neighboring island nation amid a thaw between the decadeslong Cold War foes.
Speaking after March 21 talks with Cuban President Raul Castro, Obama said Washington would continue to press Cuba's communist government on human rights and political freedoms even as the two countries move to boost economic and cultural ties.
"After more than five very difficult decades, the relationship between our governments will not be transformed overnight,” Obama said, adding that the United States and Cuba continue to have “very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights."
"I made it clear that the United States will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy, including the right of the Cuban people to decide their own future, will speak out on behalf of universal human rights, including freedom of speech and assembly and religion," he said.
Obama's visit to Cuba was the first by U.S. president in 88 years and seen as a major step toward improving relations strained since the 1959 revolution led by the Cuban president’s brother, former dictator Fidel Castro.
Standing next to Obama following the talks between the two leaders, Raul Castro praised the U.S. president’s support for ending the 54-year economic embargo against Cuba, which he said must be lifted before bilateral relations can be fully normalized.
Obama said he was encouraged that 40 members of the U.S. Congress joined him on the trip, calling it an "indication that there is growing interest inside of Congress for lifting the embargo."
"How quickly that happens will in part depend on whether we can bridge some of our differences around human rights issues. And that's why the dialogue, I think, is so important -- it sends a signal that at least there is engagement between the two countries on these matters," Obama said.
U.S. President Barack Obama (center) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stand near an image of revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos as they watch ceremonial guards during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Jose Marti monument on Revolutionary Square in Havana on March 21.
'Castro stood firm on the issue of the issue of human rights, decrying what he called U.S. "double standards."
"There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away," he said, though he vowed to focus on "those things that bring us closer."
Castro responded sharply to a question about political prisoners held by the Cuban government, demanding to be shown a list of such detainees.
"Give me a list of those political prisoners right now and if the list exists they will be released before the night is through," he said, echoing Havana's position that it does not hold any political prisoners.
Since Obama and Castro spoke in an extended phone conversation in December 2014, Havana and Washington have restored diplomatic ties, signed telecommunications deals, and agreed to resume airline services between the two countries.
Earlier in the day, Obama laid a wreath at the monument of Jose Marti, a Cuban independence hero whom Obama praised several times during his appearance with Castro for a commitment to "liberty and freedom everywhere."
Prior to Obama's arrival on March 20, Cuban authorities briefly detained dozens of pro-democracy protesters.
Obama said he would meet with Cuban civil society activists on March 22.
He was set to deliver an address to be broadcast live on Cuban state television the same day, and then attend an exhibition game between Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP