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An awkward moment between U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

An awkward moment between U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Castro Demands Obama Drop Blockade, Return 'Illegally Occupied' Guantánamo

Fifty-five percent of Americans said they support ending the 54-year-old trade embargo

Lauren McCauley

During the first family's historic visit to Cuba on Monday, the Cuban president confronted President Barack Obama about the crippling trade embargo and called on him to "return the territory illegally occupied by Guantánamo Base."

At an afternoon press conference in Havana, the two leaders touted the "concrete" achievements made since the countries resumed diplomatic relations in December 2014.

"In the 15 months that have passed since the decision was made to establish diplomatic relations, we have achieved concrete results," declared President Raúl Castro. These include resuming direct postal exchanges, and signing agreements to resume commercial flights, govern maritime environments, and pending deals regarding agriculture, drug trafficking, medicine, and other "commercial operations," such as telecommunications.

However, Castro added, "Much more could be done if the U.S. blockade were lifted."

Fifty-five percent of Americans said they support ending the 54-year-old trade embargo, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll released on Monday. A full 58 percent support the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Castro acknowledged that Obama's "repeated appeals to Congress to have [the blockade] removed" have been ignored. But, Castro said, the measures adopted thus far "are positive but insufficient" and volunteered "other steps that could be taken to remove restrictions that remain in force and make a significant effect in the reduction of the blockade."

"The blockade remains in force and it contains discouraging elements and intimidating effects and [is guilty of] extraterritorial outreach," Castro stated. 

In response, Obama again put the onus on Congress to repeal the embargo, adding, "Frankly Congress is not as active as I would like during presidential election years."

The Cuban leader also said that in order to truly normalize relations, the U.S. must "return the territory illegally occupied by Guantánamo Base," a demand which the Obama administration has thus far refused.

Secretary of State John Kerry said during a recent hearing that "there's no plan, no discussion" about returning the offshore naval base and prison, adding that he would "personally be opposed to that."

Castro, who has been under fire for reported human rights abuses including crackdowns on political dissidents, took a swipe at the United States' own record when it comes to prisoner abuse and issues of social and economic justice.

"There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away, since we hold different ideas on many subjects, such as political systems, democracy, the exercise of human rights, social justice, international relations, and world peace and stability," Castro said. "We defend human rights. We consider that the civil, political, economic and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent and universal."

The communist leader said that Cubans "find it inconceivable that a government does not ensure the right to healthcare, education, social security, food, and development, equal pay, and the rights of children."

Further, he said that Cubans "oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to civil rights," a comment which the Guardian said "could easily be read as a criticism of U.S. actions in Guantánamo versus its rhetoric on human rights."

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