US President Barack Obama has challenged Cuba’s Communist government with an impassioned call for democratic and economic change, addressing the Cuban people directly in a historic speech broadcast throughout the island.
Taking the stage at Havana’s Grand Theatre on Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro in attendance, Obama used the crowning moment of his visit to extend a ‘hand of friendship.’ He came, he said, to ‘bury the last remnant’ of the Cold War in the Americas.
But Obama also pressed hard for economic and political reforms and greater openness, speaking in a one-party state where little dissent is tolerated.
His speech was the high point of a trip made possible by his agreement with Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, and work to normalise relations. Nonetheless, Obama minced no words in his calls for change.
‘I believe citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear,’ Obama told the audience. ‘Voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.’
‘Not everybody agrees with me on this, not everybody agrees with the American people on this but I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they’re the rights of the American people, the Cuban people and people around the world,’ Obama said.
While he urged an end to the longstanding US economic embargo on the island, Obama added that ‘even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realise their potential without continued change here in Cuba.’
For years, Cuban leaders told American presidents to mind their own business. Indeed, Castro has been careful to state since the detente that it does not mean Cuba plans to change its political system, and that while his government is open to discuss any issue, it has to be with mutual respect.
Obama drew sustained applause when he reiterated his call for the US Congress to lift the embargo, which he called ‘an outdated burden on the Cuban people.’
But the response was more muted to his appeal for greater political liberties, including freedom of expression and religion. Obama followed up those comments afterwards with a private meeting with dissidents.
Obama, who abandoned a longtime US policy of trying to isolate Cuba, wants to make his shift irreversible by the time he leaves office in January and secure it as a piece of his foreign policy legacy.
But the Republican-controlled Congress has so far rejected the Democratic president’s call for a lifting of the embargo, although Obama has used his executive powers to ease some trade and travel restrictions on the island.
The president’s critics at home have called his visit a premature reward to the Castro government. US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said on Tuesday the trip legitimises what he called Castro’s ‘tyrannical dictatorship.’
‘He has been very honest in his statements,’ said Santiago Rodriguez, 78, in his home in central Havana. ‘It is not only the blockade (embargo) that has overwhelmed (us) for years. This was a message full of suggestions and positive criticism for the future of Cuba.’