March 22, 2016
HAVANA — In the keynote speech of his historic visit to Cuba, President Obama on Tuesday pointed to the messy 2016 U.S. election campaign as a sign of American progress over the past 50 years.
“It isn’t always pretty, the process of democracy; it’s often frustrating — you can see that in the election going on back home,” Obama told an audience that included Cuban President Raúl Castro.
“But just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that’s taking place right now: You had two Cuban-Americans in the Republican Party running against the legacy of a black man who was president, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee, who will either be a woman or a democratic socialist,” Obama told the full house at the ornate Gran Teatro, drawing laughter. “Who would have believed that back in 1959? That’s a measure of our progress as a democracy.” He was referring to Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, himself, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Obama’s description of the contest omitted GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, whom Obama has sharply criticized.
Obama’s unprecedented speech reached beyond the audience listening to him in the theater to Cubans watching an American president speak directly to them for the first time via state-run television, which broadcast the address.
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” Obama said. “In many ways, the United States and Cuba are like two brothers that have been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood.”
Obama waves to the crowd before he delivers his speech. (Photo: Desmond Boylan/AP)
Slideshow: Obama’s historic visit to Cuba
The president used the address to defend his economic and diplomatic opening to Cuba. Castro has largely resisted Washington’s pressure to couple market-style reforms with an easing of restrictions on political activity. Republicans have accused Obama of taking steps that legitimize the Castro regime’s stranglehold on power. White House aides counter that the five-decade-old embargo only served to give Cuba’s government an excuse for economic hardships and did nothing to foster democratic reforms.
“Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down,” Obama said, in a nod to Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” message to Moscow in Berlin in 1987. “But I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new.”
Still, he cautioned Cubans against “the blind optimism that says all your problems can go away tomorrow.”
The speech in some ways resembled the U.S. president’s annual State of the Union speech. Cubans in the room stood, clapped and cheered when he called for an end to the embargo the United States imposed in the years after the 1959 Cuban revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power. A delegation of American lawmakers applauded when Obama declared, “I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”
Raúl Castro sat in the front row of the lowest balcony, surrounded by stone-faced officials. He made no outward show of emotion. At the end of the speech — which Obama closed with “sí se puede,” Spanish for “Yes, we can,” which was his election slogan— Castro rose quickly and waved as the crowd cheered him. He did not stay long.
Obama later met with some of the Castro regime’s most stalwart opponents — dissidents and civil society leaders. The group included longtime human rights champion Elizardo Sánchez, as well as Ladies in White leader Berta Soler and LGBT activist Juana Mora Cedeño.
Cuban President Raúl Castro gestures to the audience as he takes his seat before Obama’s speech. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
“We cannot and should not ignore the very real differences that we have about how we organize our governments, our economies and our societies,” Obama said in his speech.
Still, he said, “I believe my visit here demonstrates that you do not need to fear a threat from the United States.”
At the same time, Obama said, “you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”
“I am hopeful for the future, because I trust that the Cuban people will make the right decisions,” Obama declared. “I’m also confident that Cuba can continue to play an important role in the hemisphere and around the globe. And my hope is that you can do so as a partner with the United States.”
From the meeting with dissidents, Obama headed to the Estadio Latinoamericano to watch an exhibition baseball game pitting the Tampa Bay Rays against Cuba’s national team.
The matchup began with a moment of silence for the victims of the bombings in Brussels earlier in the day. Obama and Raúl Castro stood somberly side by side.
A white-robed choir sang both national anthems — with Cuba’s first — and the rowdy crowd erupted in cheers at the end of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It was unclear whether this was a show of friendship or reflected their obvious eagerness for the game to start.
President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, accompanied by Cuban President Raúl Castro, right, observe a moment of silence for victims of terrorist attacks in Brussels prior to a baseball match in Havana. (Photo: Alejandro Ernesto/EPA)