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Obama Meets With Cuban President Raul Castro In Havana


President Obama declared a new day in relations between the U.S. and Cuba. We'll hear what that means for Cuban and American businesses in a moment - but first, more on his lengthy meeting with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro. While President Obama says they are focused on the future, it's clear hurdles remain, including on the issue of human rights. NPR's Scott Horsley reports from Havana.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Presente armas.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The symbolism was startling as President Obama stood outside the palace of the Cuban Revolution, shaking hands with Castro and getting an unlikely salute from a Cuban military band.


HORSLEY: It's a sight, Obama said, that would've been unimaginable for more than half a century, and it marked the high point in the president's 15-month-long push to replace diplomatic isolation of Cuba with aggressive U.S. outreach.


BARACK OBAMA: I think that if you meet Cubans here and Cubans meet Americans and they're meaning 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.

HORSLEY: Obama admits that change won't happen overnight. Even if the U.S. has relaxed restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba, the Castro government has been slow to open its economy and slower still to reform its one-party government. Cuban authorities rounded up dozens of anti-government demonstrations on Sunday just hours before Obama arrived here.


OBAMA: We continue, as President Castro indicated, to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights. And president Castro and I have had very frank and candid conversations on these subjects.

HORSLEY: Addressing reporters after their meeting, Castro defended Cuba's record of providing health care and education to its people, and he offered his own criticism of inequality and racism in the United States. He also appeared to brush aside an American reporter's question about political prisoners.


RAUL CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).


CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

HORSLEY: "Give me the list of political prisoners," Castro said, as if to suggest his government isn't holding any. Amid such intransigence, some critics argue it's a mistake for Obama to visit Cuba at this time, but today's ceremonial pictures with the two presidents smiling and shaking hands signal a revolution of their own.

Analysts say from now on, the United States won't be a bogeyman or an excuse for the Cuban government, a way to justify the island's economic hardships and its authoritarian rule. At the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, unflattering caricatures of past American presidents - tourist Kristin Barley of Colorado thinks Obama will be seen differently.

KRISTIN BARLEY: I think they like him. They're excited. I've heard people on the streets say they're excited. They always say, oh, Obama. So it's kind of fun.

HORSLEY: Madeline Hereria, who works in the museum, agrees.

MADELINE HERERIA: (Speaking Spanish).

HORSLEY: "Obama's likeness won't be added to the gallery of American villains," she says, "because he's got other ideas." And Obama is pressing those ideas aggressively during the remainder of this two-day visit.


OBAMA: We have a half a century of work to catch up on.

HORSLEY: Obama says he's confident the U.S. embargo against Cuba will eventually be lifted even if it doesn't happen during the ten months he has left in office. For years, Obama's been encouraging more money transfers from the U.S. to Cuba, and that's helped to bankroll a growing number of Cuban entrepreneurs. Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who's accompanying the president on this trip, says as the private sector here grows, those workers will be less beholden to the Cuban government and freer to speak their minds. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.