Fabiola Santiago

President Obama makes a rousing case for democracy in Cuba

Bravo, Mr. President, bravo.

You said to the Cuban people — and to the despotic government that rules them — everything that needed to be said.

There were no false notes, no condescending tone, and no insults or bravado in your speech in Havana on Tuesday. You poked fun at yourself, acknowledging that Raúl Castro reminds you “at length” of the problems and shortcomings you face in the United States. And to chuckles and applause, you gave as an example of a healthy exercise in democracy the two Cuban-American Republican presidential candidates running on an anti-Obama platform and “the legacy of a black man who is president.” What a lesson.

In a masterful way, you showed Cubans why a democratic, open market system makes for a more prosperous society — and you urged them to consider this for themselves. Not because you say so, but because electing leaders, being able to speak freely and assemble, and running their own businesses would improve their lives.

Sí se puede,” you assured them.

Turning to Castro, who sat in the audience, you deftly wiped away old excuses to repress: “I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders.”

Your words in Havana reached across the Florida Straits, too, in a wise and measured run through the pain, history and ideological differences that divide Cubans — and the irrevocable ties that bind us. Armed with grace, humor, and a dash of imperfect Spanish, you broke through walls that had been erected by the Cuban government and kept in place for all of my 57 years.

You acknowledged our exile, the heart-wrenching sea crossing on planes and makeshift rafts of some two million Cubans “in pursuit of freedom and opportunity, sometimes leaving behind everything they owned and every person that they loved.” You built up our cultural icons, banned on the island: salsa queen Celia Cruz, songstress Gloria Estefan, and Mr. 305, party rapper Pitbull, whose father was a Mariel refugee. You mentioned our Shrine to the Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, as a place of peaceful refuge.

Most of all, I appreciated your evocation of our beloved capital of exiles.

“In the United States,” you said, “we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build — it’s called Miami.”

Your words, delivered for all to hear in our lost homeland, are a tribute to the sacrifice our parents made when they left behind all they knew and loved to secure a life of freedom for their children. You evoked heroes we can all embrace. You displayed character, class and generosity in front of a leader who calls himself president but isn’t because he wasn’t elected. He was bequeathed the throne by a brother you didn’t name in your speech, and for that, I also thank you. Talk about one way to leave the past behind.

I hope you’ve inspired Cubans to act like free people and be tolerant of other points of view. Yours is a message the government-sponsored mobs who violently attack peaceful dissidents most needed to hear. And I hope Castro will make good on his promise to release all political prisoners, even though his oversized pride doesn’t even allow him to acknowledge they exist.

I’m not under the delusion that, in the aftermath of your olive branch, Castro will lead the way to democracy. But for today, at least we have our miracle: An American president’s powerful case on behalf of democracy and individual rights didn’t stay within the confines of a grand Havana theater, but was broadcast to the Cuban people.

Mr. President, this moment should go down in the history of your presidency as one of its finest, a model display of leadership and humanity.

, pudiste.