One of the defining hallmarks of a dictatorship is the complete absence of accountability. In Cuba, Raul Castro doesn't have to worry about inconveniences such as press conferences, in part because the country doesn't have a free press, and in part because he literally answers to no one.
[Obama turned to the press to make a point about a repressive regime] in China in 2013 by giving a New York Times reporter a question to Xi Jinping right after the government in Beijing had kicked out a reporter from the newspaper. He did it in Ethiopia last year when he forced the journalist-jailing prime minister to stand next to him for a long press conference where Obama talked about the country's record on human rights and held forth on American politics. Monday afternoon here in Havana, he did it to Raul Castro, right in the Revolutionary Palace, letting him be pressed with questions for the first time -- ever -- and joining in himself. And not just that: he had to answer for the political prisoners that the government rounds up almost daily, but denies exist at all.
At first blush, it may have seemed to Americans like the most routine of diplomatic tasks. The leaders of two countries met and then they hosted a joint press conference. Nine times out of 10, such events are uneventful. Indeed, yesterday's press conference made headlines primarily because of what happened at its end: Castro tried to hold up Obama's arm for some kind of triumphant photo-op, and Obama denied him the opportunity by letting his arm go limp.
But let's not miss the forest for the trees: This press conference was aired on Cuban television, and no one on the island nation had ever seen one of the Castro brothers field pointed questions from members of a free press.
It was part of a plan Obama and his White House team put together to make a point. As the Politico piece
made clear, Castro wasn't comfortable with the kind of scrutiny to which he's unaccustomed.
First he stood, eyes blinking as he listened to Obama take several questions from CNN's Jim Acosta. Then Castro took a long drink of water and coughed theatrically as the reporter, whose father left Cuba, turned to him in Spanish. With a smirk on his face at Acosta's pronunciation, he leaned into the podium as Acosta asked him about political prisoners. As Obama continued ticking through his answers, Castro called an aide onto stage, and conferred with him at length. Obama kept answering his question, but his eyes starting to flit to his left. "Excuse me--" Obama said, his disbelief immediately turning to mocking.
The transcript of the press conference is available
on the White House's website -- officials seemed to post it online with surprising speed -- and it's worth checking out if you missed the event itself. Note how the American president prodded Castro to respond to questions that were directed to him, as if this were just another press conference, knowing full well that it wasn't.
For Castro's part, he denied the existence of political prisoners, and foolishly demanded that journalists produce the name of such detainees so they could be released.
When the second question came from a Cuban reporter, Castro made clear just how little he was enjoying the discussion. "You are making too many questions to me," he said. "I think questions should be directed to President Obama."
When NBC News' Andrea Mitchell asked a question, Castro drank water and clumsily handled some papers assembled on his podium. After answering her question, Obama told his counterpart that Mitchell is one of America's "most esteemed journalists," who would "appreciate" a response from the Cuban leader.
"I know that if you'll stay here, you'll make 500 questions," Castro quipped. Soon after, he declared, "I think this is enough. We have concluded. Thank you for your participation."
Obama, smiling, had already gotten what he wanted.