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Obama, Castro Strike Different Notes In U.N. Remarks

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, let's turn now to the United Nations, where it has been a big week. It is the General Assembly. World leaders have gathered. And an important moment this morning - President Obama sat down with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro. Their two countries, of course, re-established diplomatic ties and have reopened embassies. Now as for whether the U.S. embargo on Cuba will be lifted, that would need congressional approval. But President Obama has used his executive authority to vastly expand opportunities for travel and trade. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that the jury is still out on how Obama's approach is working.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When President Obama spoke to the U.N. General Assembly, he held out his policy on Cuba as an example of his commitment to diplomacy. He says world leaders need to be strong enough to recognize when a policy isn't working.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: For 50 years, the United States pursued a Cuba policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people. We changed that.

KELEMEN: He's trying to promote more ties to the island through travel and trade, and he's hoping to convince lawmakers to go one big step further.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: As these contacts yield progress, I'm confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore.

(APPLAUSE)

KELEMEN: And that was Obama's biggest applause line in a speech that was mostly about other global affairs. The U.N. General Assembly has long criticized the U.S. for its embargo on Cuba, voting to condemn it each year. The U.S. has been virtually alone in its opposition to that resolution, though the Obama administration has indicated this year it might just abstain, in hopes that Congress will see just how isolated the U.S. is on this issue. Raul Castro, making his U.N. debut, didn't give Obama much to work with when it comes to U.S. domestic politics, though. Castro offered only a long list of demands before relations with the U.S. can truly be normal. He spoke through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAUL CASTRO: (Through interpreter) The return to our country of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base, the cessation of radio and TV broadcasts and of subversive and destabilizing programs against the island and when our people are compensated for the human and economic damages they still endure.

KELEMEN: Unlike his brother, Fidel, who holds a record for the longest speech at the U.N., Raul Castro barely ran over the recommended 15-minute slot. But he kept up the usual critique of U.S. meddling, not just in Cuba but also Venezuela, which came under U.S. criticism recently for jailing a leading opposition political figure. President Obama says the U.S. will continue to have differences with Cuba about human rights, but he thinks change will only come to Cuba through openness, not coercion. His critics say so far, Cuba has responded with more political arrests and repression. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.