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President Obama and President CastroMedia Event Concludes. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired March 21, 2016 - 14:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[14:30:04] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we're inviting Cuba to join us, and our Caribbean and Central American partners at this spring's Regional Energy Summit in Washington.

And finally, we're moving ahead with our closer cooperation on regional security.

We're working to deepen our law enforcement coordination, especially against narcotraffickers that threaten both of our peoples. I want to thank President Castro and the Cuban government for hosting peace talks between the Colombia government and the FARC. And we remain optimistic that Colombians can achieve a lasting and just peace.

And although we didn't have an extensive discussion of Venezuela, we did touch on the subject. And I believe the whole region has an interest in a country that is addressing their economic challenges, is responsive to the aspirations of its people and is a source of stability in the region.

That is, I believe, an interest we should all share. So, again, President Castro, I want to thank you for welcoming me. I think it's fair to say the United States and Cuba are now engaged in many areas and with each passing day more Americans are coming to Cuba, more U.S. business and school and faith groups are working to forge new partnerships with the Cuban people.

More Cubans are benefiting for the opportunities that this travel and trade begin. As you indicated, the road ahead will not be easy. Fortunately, we don't have to swim with sharks in order to achieve the goals that you and I have set forth. As you say here in Cuba (SPEAKING IN SPANISH) despite the difficulties, we will continue to move forward.

We're focused on the future. And I'm absolutely confident that if we stay on this course, we can deliver a better and brighter future for both the Cuban people and the American people. So muchos gracias, thank you very much.

MODERATOR (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We now will have a short Q&A session. So I kindly ask the journalists to identify themselves and use the mics that are in their room. First question for President Barack Obama.

OBAMA: First question, Jim Acosta.

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Gracias, President Castro. Thank you, President Castro, for your hospitality here in Havana.

In your meeting with President Castro and members, did you use to urge him to pursue Democratic reforms and expand human rights here in Cuba? Will you invite President Castro to the White House? We know he's been to New York. And why did you not meet with Fidel Castro?

And President Castro...

(THROUGH TRANSLATOR): My father is Cuban. He left for the United States when he was very young. This is a new Democratic direction for your country. And please sir, why do you have political, Cuban political prisoners? And why don't you release them? And another last question, who do you prefer, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Thank you.

OBAMA: Well, as I think we both indicated, we had a very fruitful conversation around issues of democracy and human rights. Our starting point is that we have two different systems. Two different systems of government, two different economies. And we have decades of profound differences, both bilaterally and internationally.

What I have said to President Castro is that we are moving forward and not looking backwards. That we don't view Cuba as a threat to the United States. I hope that my visit here indicates the degree to which we're setting a new chapter in Cuban-American relations. But as is true with countries around the world where we have normalized relations, we will continue to stand up for basic principles that we believe in.

America believes in democracy. We believe that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and freedom of religion are not just American values but are universal values.

[14:35:05] They may not express themselves exactly in the same way in every country. They may not be enshrined in the founding documents or constitutions of every country in the same way or protected legally in exactly the same ways, but the impulse, the human impulse towards freedom, the freedom that Jose Marti talked about, we think is a universal longing.

President Castro, I think has pointed out that in his view, making sure that everybody is getting a decent education or health care, has basic security in old age, that those things are human rights as well. I personally would not disagree with that, but it doesn't detract from some of these other concerns.

And the goal of the human rights dialogue is not for the United States to dictate to Cuba how they should govern themselves, but to make sure that we are having a frank and candid conversation around this issue, and hopefully that we can learn from each other.

It does not mean that it has to be the only issue we talk about. Economics, health, scientific exchanges, international cooperation on issues of regional as well as global import are also important. But this is something that we are going to stay on, and, you know, I actually welcome President Castro commenting on some of the areas where he feels that we're falling short, because I think we -- we should not be immune or afraid of criticism or discussion as well.

Here's -- the one thing I do know is that when I talk to Cuban American -- and Jim, you're second-generation and so I think I speak not for you directly but for many that I've talked to around the United States -- I think there's enormous hope that there can be reconciliation and the bridge that President Castro discussed can be built between the Cuban-American community and Cubans here. They're family ties and cultural ties that are so strong, and I think everyone would benefit from those ties being re-established.

One of the impediments to strengthening those ties is these disagreements around human rights and democracy. And to the extent 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. In the absence of that, I think it will continue to be a very powerful irritant.

And, you know, this is not unique to U.S./Cuban relations, it's one that, as you know, I have conversations with when we go to bilateral meetings with some of our very close allies as well as countries that we don't have as close of a relationship to, but I think this is something that matters.

And I've met with people who have been subject to arbitrary detention, and that's something I generally have to speak out on because I hear from them directly and I know what it means for them. Excuse me.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

RAUL CASTRO, PRESIDENT OF CUBA: I was asking if he was -- if his question was directed to me or to President Obama. You talked about no -- you talked about political prisoners.

OBAMA: And Trump and Hillary.

CASTRO: Him or for me?

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR.): For you, President Castro, what did you say about political prisoners? Can you repeat that question about political prisoners?

[14:40:04] CASTRO (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Did you ask if we had political prisoners? Did you ask if we had political prisoners?

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I wanted to know if you have Cuban political prisoners and why you don't release them.

CASTRO (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately. Just mention the list. What political prisoners? Give me a name or names or when -- after this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends.

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): What about your preference for...

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): My greetings for President Obama.

CASTRO (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, I -- I cannot vote in the United States.

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): My question is for President Raul Castro. My name is Bores Frente (ph). I'm from the Cuban TV.

President Raul Castro, you have repeatedly stated and today, once again, that we must learn to coexist in a civilized manner with our differences. Could you broaden this concept at this historical moment that -- that we are living?

And then I have a brief question for President Obama. President Obama, could U.S. government give more space to eliminate U.S. blockade during your mandate so that another generation of Cubans would not have to suffer this economic and commercial blockade against Cuba?

CASTRO (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The first question was for me. Please repeat your question because I couldn't hear well.

QUESTION (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): You have said repeatedly -- that we must learn to coexist in a civilized manner with our differences.

CASTRO (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, President Obama himself has referred to that. We have given the first steps, many for being the first steps, and we must continue giving these steps. And I'm sure that we will be able to coexist peacefully in an environment of mutual cooperation as we are doing already in many fields for the benefit of both countries and for the benefit of other countries, as we have already done.

In Haiti, when the cholera and in Africa, with the Ebola. That is the future of mankind if we want to save the human species. So the water grows -- the level of water grows and the island may become smaller. That is -- you are making too much questions -- too many questions to me. I think questions should be directed to President Obama.

OBAMA: So we have administratively already made a number of modifications on the embargo. I referred to a number of them in my opening statement. And we've actually been fairly aggressive in exercising as much flexibility as we can, given that the law, putting the embargo in place, has not been repealed by Congress.

There may be some technical aspects of the embargo that we can still make adjustments on, depending on problems as they arise. So for example, the issue around the dollar and the need to make modifications in terms of how the embargo was implemented to encourage rather than discourage reforms that the Cuban government itself is willing to engage in and to facilitate greater trade in commerce, that is something that grew out of the dialogue between our governments and we have made appropriate adjustments to it. It will take some time for commercial banks to understand the new rules, but we actually think that this is an area where we can improve current circumstances. [14:45:10] But I'll be honest with you, that the list of things we can

do administratively is growing shorter, and the bulk of changes that have to be made with respect to the embargo are now going to rely on Congress making changes.

I've been very clear about the interest in getting that done before I leave. Frankly, Congress is not as productive as I would like during presidential election years. But the fact that we have such a large congressional delegation, with Democrats and Republicans with us, is an indication there is growing interest inside of Congress for lifting the embargo.

As I just indicated my earlier answer, 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's engagement between the two countries on these matters. OK.

Now, I promised the president I would take one more question. Andrea Mitchell of NBC.

Andrea, if you can get the mic.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

Do you feel after your meeting today that you have made enough progress to even accelerate the pace? And that the Cuban government is able to quickly enough, so the changes that you have made through these technical adjustments to the embargo, will be permanent, cannot be reversed by the next president?

And what advice have you given to President Castro about the ability of having the blockade, the embargo lifted? Because he has said again today this is continuous issue, which is blocking progress, from their standpoint.

OBAMA: Right.

QUESTION: And you said the conversations about human rights were frank and candid and that you want to move forward. But even as you were arriving, there were dramatic arrests of peaceful protests, the Ladies in White.

What signal does that send? Can you have civilized coexistence, at the same time you have such profound disagreements about the very definitions about what human rights means, as President Castro has expressed today?

And for President Castro, for many of us, it's remarkable to hear you speak about all these subjects. Would you tell us what you see in the future? President Obama has nine months remaining. You have said you would be stepping down in 2018.

What is the future of our two countries, given the different definitions and the different interpretations of profound issues like democracy and human rights? Thanks.

OBAMA: Well, Andrea, I -- the embargo's going to end. When, I can't be entirely sure. But I believe it will end, and the path that we're on will continue beyond my administration. The reason is logical. The reason is that what we did for 50 years did not serve our interests or the interests of the Cuban people. And as I said when we made the announcement about normalization of relations, if you keep on doing something over and over again for 50 years and it doesn't work, it might make sense to do something new.

And that's what we've done. And the fact there's been strong support, not just inside of Congress, not just among the American people, but also among the Cuban people indicates this is a process that should and will continue.

Having said that, lifting the embargo requires the votes of a majority in Congress, and maybe even more than a majority in the Senate.

And as I indicated to President Castro, two things I think will help accelerate the pace of bringing the embargo to an end.

The first is to the degree that we can take advantage of the existing changes that we've already made and we see progress, that will help to validate this change in policy.

[14:50:06] So, for example, we have said that it is no longer a restriction on U.S. companies to invest in helping to build Internet and broadband infrastructure inside of Cuba. It is not against U.S. law. As it's been interpreted by the administration.

If we start seeing those kinds of commercial deals taking place and Cubans are benefiting from greater access to the Internet and when I go to the entrepreneurship meeting later this afternoon, I understand that we're going to meet some young Cubans who are already getting trained and are faster at using the Internet and interested in start- ups, that builds a constituency for ending the embargo.

If we build on the work we're doing in agriculture and you start seeing more U.S. farmers interacting with Cuban farmers and there's more exports and imports, that builds a constituency. The possibility of ending the embargo increases. So hopefully taking advantage of what we've already done will help. And the second area, which we've discussed extensively, is the issue of human rights.

People are still concerned about that inside of Cuba. Now, keep in mind, I've got fierce disagreements with the Chinese around human rights. I'll be going to Vietnam later this year. I have deep disagreements with them as well. You know, when we first visited Burma, people questioned whether we should be traveling there because of long-standing human rights violations in our view.

And the approach that I've taken has been that if I engage, frankly, clearly, stating what our beliefs are, but also being clear that we can't force change on any particular country. Ultimately it has to come from within, then that is going to be a more useful strategy than the same kinds of rigid disengagement that for 50 years did nothing.

I guess ultimately what this comes down to, Andrea, is I have faith in people. I think if you meet Cubans here and Cubans meet Americans and they're meeting and talking and interacting and doing business together and going to school together and learning from each other, then they'll recognize people are people. And in that context, I believe that change will occur.

QUESTION: President Castro?

OBAMA: OK, now I'm done, but, Senor President, I think Andrea had a question for you, just about your vision. It's up to you. He did say he was only going to take one question, I was going to take two. But I leave it up to you if you want to address that question. Andrea's...

(LAUGHTER)

She's one of our most esteemed journalists in America and I'm sure she'd appreciate just a short, brief answer.

CASTRO: Andrea.

QUESTION: Mr. President.

CASTRO (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The other day I asked a question to our foreign minister, Andrea. But there is a program here to be fulfilled. I know that if I stay here, you'll make 500 questions. I said that I was going to answer one. Well, I'll answer one and a half.

President Obama has already helped me out with the answer here, Andrea. Well, Andrea. I was reading here something I think about human rights, but I'm going to make the question to you now. There are 41 -- there are 61 international instruments to recognize how many countries in the world comply with all the human rights and civil rights that have been included in these 61 instruments.

What country complies with them all? Do you know how many? I do. None.

[14:55:03] None whatsoever. Some countries comply some rights, other comply others. And we are among these countries. Out of these 61 instruments, Cuba has complied with 47 of these human rights instruments.

There are countries that may comply with more, those that comply with less. I think human rights issues should not be politicized. That is not correct. If that is a purpose, then we will stay the same way. Like, for example -- for Cuba that does not fulfill all the rights.

Do you think there is any other -- more sacred right than the right to help so that billions of children don't die just for the lack of a vaccine or a drug or a medicament. For example, do you agree with the right to free education for all those born anywhere in the world or in any country? I think many countries don't think this is a human right. In Cuba, all children are born in a hospital and they are registered that same day because when mothers are in advanced pregnancy, they are -- they go to hospitals days before, many days before delivery, so that all children are born in hospitals. It doesn't matter if they live in faraway places or in mountains or hills.

We have many other rights -- a right to health, the right to education. Do you -- and this is my last example that I will mention. Do you think that for equal work, men get better pay than women just for the fact of being women? Well in Cuba, women get same pay for same work. I can give you many, many examples, so I don't think we cannot use the argument of human rights for political confrontation. That is not fair. It's not correct.

I'm not saying that is not honest, it's part of confrontations, of course. But let us work so that we can all comply with all human rights. It's like talking about pride -- and I'm going to end here because there is a commitment that we should end in time. It's not correct to ask me about political prisoners in general. Please give me the name of a political prison, and I think with this is enough.

OBAMA: Thank you.

CASTRO: We have concluded. Thank you for your participation.

[14:58:48] ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: You have just been watching a press conference here in Cuba with President Obama and President Raul Castro. A very, very strange press conference. It started out with Raul Castro speaking. He was talking about agricultural deals, and it sort of seemed like it was going to be perhaps a bit dry for most people watching. It turned into anything but. President Obama spoke. They were not anticipated to take questions. That's not something Raul Castro does at press conferences. But they did take questions.

There were some very pointed questions, from our own Jim Acosta, on human rights, and they answered those questions. And there was sort of a bit of who's going be to the bigger person in charge, talking about human rights. The president of Cuba, Raul Castro, point blank, denying there are political prisoners in this country, saying give me a list, if we have them, they will be released before tonight. And going on to say it is the United States that also violates human rights protocols.

I want to bring in Devry Vorwerk. She is a senior policy adviser at Akin Gump. She's been working and doing business with Cuba for 16 years.

This was not what anyone expected. I mean, you sort of saw these two gentlemen, and it became clear that in their meeting earlier they hadn't talked about everything they wanted to talk about. Human rights came right to the forefront again and again and again.

DEVRY BOUGHNER VORWERK, CHAIR, U.S. AGRICULTURE COALITION FOR CUBA: Yeah. I think it's to be expected, actually, because this is the first time that the two presidents have come together to actually negotiate some of these issues. And I think what it really is, is it's a new beginning. It's not --