Cuban President Raúl Castro’s eruption filled the grim auditorium where he and President Obama faced the news media after a historic meeting in Havana.
After lengthy opening statements, including polite disagreements over human rights, largely couched in agree-to-disagree diplomatic blah-blah, CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Cuba’s infrequently questioned leader in rusty but respectful Spanish why his socialist government here jails dissidents, and whether he would free them.
“Dáme la lista!” Castro thundered at Acosta, a second-generation Cuban-American. “Give me the list of political prisoners, right now!”
“What political prisoners? Give me a name or names, and 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,” Castro said, according to a translation of his remarks.
The CNN reporter did not have a list, but many human rights groups have documented Cuba’s pattern of trying to smother any spark of dissent. Even as Obama flew here aboard Air Force One, security forces detained one high-profile democracy activist, Elizardo Sánchez, and squelched a peaceful protest by the Ladies In White. The group’s weekly demonstrations regularly end with arrests, its members and human rights groups say.
Acosta’s question clearly got under Castro’s skin. He came back to it at the end of the press conference, declaring it “not correct” — improper — and asking again: “Please give me a name.”
Even before Castro’s outburst, the press conference had veered into uncharted territory. While Obama answered a different question from Acosta, Castro summoned an aide to the stage and began an animated conversation.
“Excuse me,” a bemused Obama said, trying to get Castro’s attention.
“I was asking if he was — if his question was directed to me or to President Obama,” the Cuban leader explained.
It was not the first time Castro seemed unaccustomed to the theatrics of a press conference. Throughout the session, he loudly cleared his throat — a sound magnified by the headsets transmitting real-time translations of the remarks. He tapped his pen in front of his microphone.
Obama’s second question came from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who seized the opportunity to press Castro for his view of the schism over human rights. The U.S. president revealed that the leaders had arranged for two questions for Obama and one for Castro, then urged his host to answer Mitchell’s query.
Castro rubbed his hands against each other, as though spoiling for a fight. Then, spotting the outstretched hands of reporters on the Cuban side of the room, he seemed to think better of it.
“There is a program here to be fulfilled,” he said. “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.”
Castro charged that no country complies with all human rights standards. “I think human rights issues should not be politicized,” he said, reprising a standard Cuban rejection of criticism from Washington.
The socialist leader sidestepped a question about whether he preferred Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race.
“I cannot vote in the United States,” he said.