Obama and Castro
Obama and Castro Reuters

Cuban President Raul Castro on Monday called on his American counterpart Barack Obama to lift longstanding trade and other restrictions on his country, The Associated Press reported.

The comments came as Castro and Obama pledged, during Obama's historical visit to Cuba, to move forward with normalizing relations between the two countries.

"This is a new day," Obama said, standing alongside Castro after their meeting at Havana's Palace of the Revolution.

Obama arrived in Havana on Sunday for the first visit to Cuba by an American president in 88 years. The visit follows Obama and Castro's announcement that ties between the countries would be restored.

At Monday's meeting, Castro praised Obama's recent steps to relax controls on Cuba as "positive," but deemed them insufficient. He called anew for the U.S. to return its naval base at Guantanamo Bay to Cuba and to lift the U.S. trade embargo.

"That is essential, because the blockade remains in place, and it contains discouraging elements," Castro said, according to AP.

Obama came to Cuba pledging to press its leaders on human rights and political freedoms, and vowing that the mere fact of a visit by an American leader would promote those values on the island. Castro worked to turn the tables on Obama by saying Cuba found it "inconceivable" for a government to fail to ensure health care, education, food and social security for its people -- a clear reference to the U.S.

"We defend human rights," Castro was quoted as having said. "In our view, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent and universal."

Obama said he had raised "very serious differences" the United States has with Cuba on democracy and human rights, but portrayed those difficult conversations as a prerequisite to closer relations.

Crediting Cuba for making progress as a nation, Obama said part of normalizing relations between the two countries means "we discuss these differences directly."

"The future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans -- not by anybody else," Obama said, according to AP. "At the same time, as we do wherever we go around the world, I made it clear the U.S. will continue to speak up about democracy, including the right of the Cuban people to decide their own future."