While in Cuba, Obama calls for more respect for human rights

HAVANA -- Few Americans thought they would live to see this day -- an American president meeting with a communist president named Castro in Havana.

Fifty-five years after eight U.S. aircraft bombed the Bay of Pigs -- in an attempt to overthrow the Castro dictatorship -- Air Force One flew the last mission of the Cold War with Russia. Once, the world held its breath over Cuba.

President Obama arrived in a country still waiting to exhale.

It was a striking image: President Obama in Havana's Revolutionary Square, with a giant outline of communist icon Che Guevara looking down.

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Back dropped by a monument depicting Cuba's revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, U.S. President Barack Obama, Vice-President of Cuba's State Council Salvador Valdes Mesa, right, and other members of the U.S. delegation stand during a ceremony at the Jose Marti Monument in Havana, Cuba, Monday March 21, 2016.
AP

A gesture to a troubled past on a day President Obama focused on the future.

"This is a new day," Mr. Obama said.

Since arriving Sunday, the president has delighted the Cuban people by touring old Havana and reviewing Cuban troops.

But after their meeting Monday, Mr. Obama said he had a frank discussion with Castro about Cuba's human rights record.

"To the extent that we can have a good conversation about that and to actually make progress, that I think will allow us to see the full flowering of a relationship that is possible," Mr. Obama said. "In the absence of that I think it will continue to be a powerful irritant."

Castro got a taste of American freedom of the press when he was asked about Cuban political prisoners. Clearly frustrated, he denied there were any.

"What political prisoners?" he said.

But just Sunday the regime arrested more than two dozen protesters.

Activist Antonio Rodiles was among them.

"You allow them to do all these violations, and at the same time, you're giving more econ facilities and econ possibilities, then for sure, they are getting the signal, they can do whatever they want," Rodiles said.

The Obama administration argues that the best way to improve human rights is to invest in Cuba's future by strengthening economic ties.

Horace Clemmons and his business partner Saul Berenthal will open the first American-owned factory in Havana since the communist revolution.

They'll sell tractors to Cuban farmers, still reliant on livestock to plow their fields.

Berenthal fled Cuba as a child.

"I have made peace with the past," he said. "I have been able to not only understand what happened, and figure out that the best way to heal is to do exactly what we're doing."

American executives are also in Cuba as part of the president's delegation. Starwood Hotels just inked a deal to be the first American hotel operator in Havana in nearly 60 years. And Google is in talks to increase internet access on the island.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.