Obama leaves Cuba asking island to embrace change

President Barack Obama speaks at El Gran Teatro de Havana, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba.
President Barack Obama speaks at El Gran Teatro de Havana, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. AP

By the time Air Force One left José Martí International Airport Tuesday afternoon, President Barack Obama had thrilled crowds, hit historic spots in Old Havana, taken in a baseball game and delivered a commanding lesson in diplomacy — denouncing Cuba’s authoritarian abuses even as he wooed his hosts.

At the end of the historic three-day trip, relations between the Cold War foes seemed closer than ever, even as questions remained about how long the thaw might last after the spotlight followed the president to his next stop in Argentina.

The centerpiece of the visit was Tuesday’s powerful speech, televised across the island, in which Obama touted the benefits of democracy and advised Cuba’s leaders to tolerate dissent, criticism and even protests.

“I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize and to criticize their government and to protest peacefully,” he said. “And that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.”

“And yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections,” he added.

But the thrust of the speech, delivered at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso before a packed audience that included President Raúl Castro and his cabinet, was that it was time for the nations to move beyond decades of acrimony.

“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he said to applause. “I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”

Obama also reassured the island that it had nothing to fear from America.

“I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba,” he said. “What changes come will depend on the Cuban people.”

As he acknowledged that Cuba has often taken the United States to task for its economic inequality, its use of the death penalty, racial discrimination and wars abroad, Obama said he appreciated the critique.

“I welcome this open debate and dialogue,” Obama said. “It’s good. It’s healthy. I’m not afraid of it.”

“We do have too much money in American politics,” he conceded. “But in America, it’s still possible for somebody like me, a child who was raised by a single mom, a child of mixed race who did not have a lot of money, to pursue and achieve the highest office in the land.”

He also said this year’s U.S. presidential race was a symbol of how democracy can transform society.

“You had two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a black man who is president, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a Democratic Socialist,” he said to laughter from the audience. “Who would have believed that back in 1959?”

Castro sat through most of the speech stone-faced, listening to it through a translator. But he broke into applause when Obama mentioned ending the half-century economic embargo.

“Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow,” Obama cautioned, “Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”

He said the island needed to continue opening its economy, eliminate the dual exchange rate and allow its people to more easily connect to the Internet.

“There’s no limitation from the United States on the ability of Cuba to take these steps,” Obama said. “If you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential. And over time, the youth will lose hope.”

Poetic flourish

Obama’s speech was laced with Cubanisms — la pelota, ropa vieja — many supplied by members of the Cuban-American community who were invited to the White House last week.

The president also evoked independence hero José Martí, who is revered on both sides of the Florida Straits, with a reference to his poem “Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca“ (I Have a White Rose to Tend).

In the poem, Martí offers a white rose to the “cruel one whose blows break the heart with which I live.”

“That poem is the essence of peace-making,” said Miami attorney Pedro Freyre, who was in the audience at the ornate theater. “It says I give a white rose to my friend and to my enemy.”

“I thought it was a brilliant speech — a perfect balance between offering peace and reconciliation but still challenging the Cuban government,” said Freyre, whose clients include a number of U.S. companies trying to do business with Cuba.

It wasn’t lost on the Cuban-Americans in the audience that exiles figured so importantly in the speech. After thanking the Cuban government and people for their kindness, Obama immediately launched into their story — the pain of exile and their ultimate success in their new country.

“In the United States, there is a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build,” Obama said. “It’s called Miami.”

“I’m particularly grateful for the recognition,” Freyre said.

Dissident meeting

Immediately after the speech, the president met with members of civil society, including dissidents, at the U.S. Embassy.

As he sat with them at a small oval table, he said everyone there had shown “extraordinary courage.”

“They have spoken out on behalf of the issues that they care deeply about,” he said. “Some of them represent specific constituencies inside of Cuba. Some of them have broader concerns regarding democracy, the ability to speak freely, worship freely, or assemble or are advocating on behalf of democratic practices here in Cuba.”

Among the dissidents at the meeting were Berta Soler, with Ladies in White, activist Guillermo Coco Fariñas, and the founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, Elizardo Sánchez.

Brussels bombing

Obama’s trip was marred by the terrorism attacks in Brussels, Belgium, which left at least 30 dead.

During his speech, the president pledged support to Belgium.

“This is yet another reminder that the world must unite,” he said. “We must be together, regardless of nationality or race or faith in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.”

The speech resonated with many of those in the audience.

As he walked out of the theater after the address, Carlos Saladrigas, a Miami businessman, said he was “awed” by the president’s eloquence.

“He literally touched on every point he needed to touch on,” he said, noting that Obama was “so respectful of Cuban sovereignty... yet challenged everyone here to dream and think of a better future. I think the reaction of the Cuban people will be overwhelmingly positive.”

Ric Herrero, director of CubaNow, which supports engagement with Cuba and lifting the embargo, was also enthusiastic about the speech.

“I think it’s one of the most momentous speeches ever delivered on Cuban soil. I’m still on a high,” he said.

“It was great to see him come here and embrace a debate over our differences yet do it in the spirit of reconciliation,” he said. “It’s a model I think we should all follow.”

Far Enough?

But some wondered about the lasting effects of the speech.

Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Foundation, took issue with Obama’s comment about burying the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.

“Mr. President, until the Cuban people are free from Communism, remnants of the Cold War live on,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami said the president should have made more demands of Cuba. Even so, called the speech “a major improvement from [Monday’s] disastrous joint press conference in which the leader of the greatest nation in the world was subjected to a babbling and cynical lecture from a third world dictator on human rights and social justice.”

“I appreciate the President’s optimism for the future of Cuba and his nod to the exile community in South Florida,” Curbelo said in a statement. “His emphasis on human rights and democracy is commendable — especially to an audience replete with Castro sycophants.”

The Obamas ended their trip at the Estadio Latinoamericano to catch part of a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

Sitting side by side with Castro, Obama glad-handed fans and baseball players and tried to encourage the Cuban president in joining in “the wave.”

In an interview with ESPN, Obama talked about how Jackie Robinson had played at the same field months before he made history by breaking the race barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson, he said, had single-handedly helped shift U.S. views toward race.

“That’s the power of sports,” Obama said. “It can change attitudes in ways that sometimes politicians can’t... or a speech can’t.”

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