Brushing past profound differences, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are sitting down Monday at Havana's Palace of the Revolution for a historic meeting, offering critical clues about whether the sharp U.S. U-turn in policy will be fully reciprocated.
In a historic joint press conference in Cuba, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro stressed the major differences that stand between the two governments in terms of views of democracy and human rights and freedom, but said efforts to restore relations should move forward.
Castro, 84, praised Obama, 51, for his efforts to restore diplomatic relations between the long-time adversaries and to push for an end to the embargo, but he firmly admonished the United States for keeping it in place and took shots at its northern neighbor for what he said were failures to provide free healthcare and higher education to its citizens.
One of the most dramatic moments was an interchange between CNN reporter Jim Acosta, a second-generation Cuban-American, and Castro, a figure of absolute authority in Cuba who is never subjected to aggressive questioning by the state-controlled press or exposed to questions from independent foreign reporters.
When asked why Cuba has political prisoners, Castro testily addressed Acosta directly, saying "Give me the list now of political prisoners to release ... if there are political prisoners they'll be free before nightfall."
Shortly after, the Cuban American National Foundation, one of the most influential Cuban exile lobby groups in the world, released a list of 47 political prisoners. The group, CANF, said in a statement that accompanied the list: "As requested today by Cuban President, Raul Castro, the Cuban American National Foundation provides a list of 47 verified political prisoners. It is our expectation that these political prisoners will be released, unconditionally, by this evening."
Castro restated his government's long-stated position that it simply places different emphasis on a wide range of human rights, assuring its people free health care and education while restricting activities by people it considers to be U.S. agents acting to destabilize the government.
Castro said no country meets all international standards on human rights.
White House officials spent weeks pushing their Cuban counterparts to agree for the leaders to take questions from reporters after their private meeting, reaching agreement just hours before Obama and Castro appeared before cameras. It's extremely rare for Castro to give a press conference, though he has sometimes taken questions from reporters spontaneously when the mood strikes.
While the issue of political prisoners is hugely important to Cuban-Americans and the international community, most people on the island are more concerned about the shortage of goods and their struggles with local bureaucracy.
Castro appeared agitated at times during the questioning, professing to not understand whether inquiries were directed to him.
Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge went there in 1928. The visit comes amid dramatic changes in the relations between Cuba and the United States. The Obama administration has eased numerous U.S.-Cuba travel and trade restrictions, and has indicated that more are coming.
Cuba is criticized for briefly detaining demonstrators thousands of times a year but has drastically reduced its practice of handing down long prison sentences for crimes human rights groups consider to be political. Cuba released dozens of political prisoners as part of its deal to normalize relations with Cuba and Amnesty International said in its 2015/2016 report that it knew of no prisoners of conscience in Cuba.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, based in Washington D.C., lists 51 current political prisoners in Cuba.
Cuban government officials typically deny the existence of political prisoners, saying instead that counter-revolutionary activities, or trying to incite others against the regime, is a crime, and those found guilty of such activities are criminals.
In his remarks, Obama said he and Castro had a "frank and candid conversation" on human rights and democracy, and are making progress in tearing down barriers between the two nations.
Obama declared it a "new day" in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
The president noted the two nations have "very serious differences," particularly on areas regarding freedom of speech, assembly and religious liberty. But Obama says he believes the two governments are capable of having a "constructive dialogue."
Obama noted success in increasing travel between the nations, increased trade and tourism. He says he's working to ease the path for joint corporate ventures and hiring more Cubans in the U.S.
Obama sought to reassure Cubans wary of the return of U.S. engagement. He says: "Cuba's destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation. ... The future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans not by anybody else."
Back in the United States, the reactions were mixed, with many praising the historic moment, and saying that it was time to turn the page in U.S.-Cuba relations, and others saying that Obama was playing into the hands of the Castro regime.
"The Castro regime has already stated that it will not change one bit after all of these concessions," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American from Florida and an opponent of lifting the embargo. "The Cuban people deserve better. The American people deserve better."
Ros-Lehtinen, who denounced Obama's visit to Cuba in a speech in Congress on Monday, maintains that Obama's actions and overtures benefit only the Castro regime by lending it legitimacy, but does nothing to help the Cuban people.
Meanwhile, seeing Castro take questions at a press conference – a rare occurrence – was as stunning for Cubans on the island as it was for people around the world.
The session was broadcast live on Cuban state television. Cubans interviewed on the streets said they were shocked at seeing Castro being challenged by reporters.
Especially interesting were questions for Castro about human rights and political prisoners.
"It's very significant to hear this from our president, for him to recognize that not all human rights are respected in Cuba," said Raul Rios, a 47-year-old driver. Rios says he agrees with the Castro's argument that no country is perfect and all should strive to do better.
Marlene Pino, an engineer, also 47, says: "This is pure history and I never thought I'd see something like this. It's difficult to quickly assimilate what's happening here. For me it's extraordinary to see this."
AP contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente