HAVANA — In Cuba, just having a news conference is news.
President Barack Obama jokes that he likes news conferences and wants to do more of them, and let them go on longer. That tends to be less the case at the White House than abroad, when Obama’s trying to make a point about a repressive regime by turning to the news media.
He did it in China in 2013 by giving a New York Times reporter a question to President Xi Jinping right after the government in Beijing had kicked out a reporter from the newspaper. He did it in Ethiopia last year, when he forced the journalist-jailing prime minister to stand next to him for a long news conference during which Obama talked about the country’s record on human rights and held forth on American politics.
Monday afternoon here in Havana, he did it to Raúl Castro, right in the Revolutionary Palace, letting him be pressed with questions for the first time — ever — and joining in himself. And not just that: He had to answer for the political prisoners whom the government rounds up almost daily — yet denies even exist.
Cubans watching on state television, which broadcast the whole thing live and in full, had never seen anything like this. Neither has the White House press corps. Or anyone who works at the White House.
The awkward photo that ended the event, with Obama looking like he had a limp wrist because he resisted Castro’s attempt to raise their hands together in victory as they walked out of the room, couldn’t change what had happened in what’s likely to be the most important hour of the president’s two-day trip here.
The negotiations continued until the final hours and came down to White House officials counting on Cubans watching American movies and TV. U.S. officials pressed their Cuban counterparts early Monday morning, according to one American familiar with the discussions, and leveled with them: You’ve seen how this goes. The president finishes speaking, everyone shoots a hand in the air and the president takes a question. It’ll be really embarrassing if your president is just standing there or walks out.
Just before the news conference, reporters were led in for a brief look at the bilateral meeting between the two leaders, the U.S. and Cuban flags behind them, the delegations facing each other on either side. Obama never does a great job of hiding how silly he thinks that kind of access is. Castro seemed to be picking up on that, saying through a translator as they posed for the handshake, “Make them happy.”
By the time the leaders moved into the news conference next door, it was clear it was Castro who wasn’t happy.
First he stood, eyes blinking as he listened to Obama take several questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta. Then Castro took a long drink of water and coughed theatrically as the reporter, whose father had left Cuba, turned to address the Cuban leader in Spanish. Smirking at Acosta’s pronunciation, Castro leaned into the lectern as Acosta asked him about political prisoners.
As Obama continued ticking through his answers, Castro called an aide onstage and conferred with him at length. Obama kept answering his question, but his eyes started to flit to his left.
“Excuse me —” Obama said, his disbelief immediately becoming mocking. White House officials tensed. Castro looked back at Acosta, pretending as though the later question hadn’t been for him.
“Second one was to you,” Obama said, prodding Castro along (and along the way, managing to deftly duck Acosta’s question about why he wasn’t meeting with former President Fidel Castro on this trip).
“He talked about political prisoners,” Raúl Castro said, turning back to Obama, according to the official simultaneous translation.
“Also Trump and Hillary,” Obama said.
“For him or for me?” Castro asked, looking at Acosta.
Finally, Castro relented and asked Acosta to repeat his question about political prisoners, then cut off the reporter, his right hand chopping the air.
“Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them. Just mention names,” Castro said. “If we have those political prisoners, they will be released before the night ends.”
Obama looked on with a smile.
Castro remembered the second question, about whether he preferred Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and recovered for a moment: “Well, I cannot vote in the United States,” he said.
The bubble was popped. The reporter for Cuban state television had a question for Obama but started with one for Castro about what steps he was taking toward improving the countries’ relationship.
Castro started to answer, but stopped himself.
“You are making too many questions to me,” he said. “I think questions should be directed to President Obama.”
So Obama took another. He turned to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. He quickly answered her question about the future of the embargo, which he said is “going to end. When, I can’t be entirely be sure. But I believe it will end, and the path that we’re on will continue after my time in office.” He talked about his faith in what would come from more person-to-person contact between Cubans and Americans.
Then, playing media moderator, he passed it to Castro, who had been fiddling with papers the whole time, except for another long, theatrical drink of water.
“Now I’m done, but I think Señor Presidente, I think Andrea had a question for you,” Obama said.
He turned to Mitchell.
“He did say he was going to take one question, and I said I was going to take two,” Obama said, before pivoting to Castro. “She’s one of our most esteemed journalists in America. I’m sure she’d appreciate just a short answer.”
Doing his best impression of Dick Dastardly from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Castro rubbed his hands together, rolling his “r”s as he said, “Andrea,” several times.
“I know that if you’ll stay here, you’ll make 500 questions. I said I was going to answer one, and I’m going to answer one and a half,” he said.
He had his answer about her human rights question prepared: “I’m going to make the question to you now,” he said.
There are “61 instruments of human rights,” Castro said, quoting a number he seemed to have invented on his own.
“What country complies with them all? Do you know how many? I know. None. None whatsoever. Some countries comply some rights, others comply with others,” Castro said, by way of defense. “Of these 61 instruments, Cuba has complied with 47 issues.”
He turned the exchange into an opportunity to beat up on the U.S. In Cuba, they think universal health care is a human right, Castro said. Every child is born in a hospital, no matter where they’re from, or who their parents are, he added. They believe education for all is a human right, he said. And finally, in a point that got Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett nodding at communications director Jen Psaki, implying the Cuban leader had a point, Castro said he thinks equal pay for women is a human right, too.
Human rights issues, he said, “should not be politicized.”
“That is not fair, it’s not correct. I’m not saying it’s not honest, it’s part of confrontations of course,” Castro concluded.
Castro checked his watch. There’s a schedule to keep to, he said, though his scheduled time with Obama was until later in the evening, when they would attend a state dinner.
But he returned to the point that had gotten under his skin a few minutes earlier.
“It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners in general,” he said.
Then he looked toward the exit.
“I think this is enough,” Castro said. “We have concluded. Thank you for your participation.”