Obama to address Cuba on TV, meet dissidents

Andrew Beatty and Sebastian Smith
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US President Barack Obama (2-L) stands next to Cuban President Raul Castro upon his arrival at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016

US President Barack Obama (2-L) stands next to Cuban President Raul Castro upon his arrival at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016 (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm)

Havana (AFP) - President Barack Obama is to address the Cuban people live on television Tuesday before meeting with dissidents in a challenge to the communist regime on the final day of his historic visit.

In the latest of a series of firsts during a groundbreaking trip, Obama was to start by giving a speech scheduled to be aired on Cuban state-controlled television from the Gran Teatro in the capital Havana.

The opportunity to speak directly to Cubans would have been unthinkable only recently, underlining how far Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro have gone in tearing down barriers that for more than 50 years turned the two neighbors into bitter enemies.

"The speech is very important because it's the one chance on this visit to really step back and just speak directly to the Cuban people," Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes said.

Rhodes signaled that Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Cuba for 88 years, would touch on the tortuous US-Cuban past and opportunities for the future.

But immediately after the speech, Obama was due to host civil society and opposition figures at the US embassy, returning head on to a subject that ruffled feathers Monday.

- Tensions -

Obama and Castro have been careful to highlight their rapprochement during the US president's three-day trip, which was to end later Tuesday with a baseball game between the Cuban national team and Florida's Tampa Bay Rays, symbolizing the countries' shared love of the sport.

At a first-ever joint press conference with Castro on Monday, Obama heralded a "new day" in relations across the Florida Straits.

However, Cuba is angry over the refusal of the US Congress to take down a decades-old trade embargo, something Obama said was sure to happen eventually.

And tension erupted when the subject of human rights in the one-party state came up, illustrating what Castro called "profound differences."

Asked by a US journalist about the fate of political prisoners, Castro responded angrily that there were no such prisoners. "After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will all released before the night ends," he said.

Castro went on to attack the United States for bringing up the human rights question when, he said, US rights were themselves inadequate when it comes to health care, social security, and "double standards."

Castro also said that Washington needs to return sovereignty over Guantanamo, a corner of Cuba under US control and the location for a controversial military prison housing foreigners allegedly involved in terrorism.

- Question of legitimacy -

Obama, a Democrat with less than a year left in power, has been criticized by Republicans and human rights representatives over his opening to Cuba.

But he told ABC television in the United States late Monday that the policy was already bearing fruit, by forcing the isolated state to engage.

"If you think about today's press conference, as far as I can tell, that may be the first time that Raul Castro's ever stood in front of not just US press, but also Cuban press and answered questions," he said. "That could not have happened unless we had changed this policy."

Obama also insisted he had not stopped tackling Castro over human rights.

"One of the things I said to President Castro, and I truly believe in this, is that if they were less fearful of dissent, that not only might they be able to improve governance here, but I suspect that they could enhance their legitimacy in the eyes of the Cuban people," Obama said.

Obama said that proof of his toughness on the issue was that the Castro government, which controls all important aspects of Cuban politics, had not been allowed a veto on the list of dissidents invited to Tuesday's embassy meeting.

"We were very clear we're going to meet with who it is we want to meet," he told ABC.