In Cuba, Obama calls for burying 'last remnant' of Cold War
Capping his remarkable visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama today declared an end to the "last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas" and openly urged the Cuban people to pursue a more democratic future for this communist nation 90 miles from Miami.
With Cuban President Raul Castro watching from a balcony, Obama said the government should not fear citizens who speak freely and vote for their own leaders. And with Cubans watching on tightly controlled state television, Obama said they would be the ones to determine their country's future, not the United States.
"Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down," Obama said. "But I'm appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new."
On the streets of Havana, the president's address sparked extraordinarily rare public discussions about democracy, and some anger with Cuba's leaders. Cubans are used to complaining bitterly about economic matters but rarely speak publicly about any desire for political change, particularly in conversations with foreign journalists.
Juan Francisco Ugarte, Oliva, a 71-year-old retired refrigeration technician, said the American president "dared to say in the presence of the leaders, of Raul Castro, that (Cubans) had the right to protest peacefully without being beaten or arrested".
Omardy Isaac, a 43-year-old who works in a gift shop, said, "Cubans need all of their rights and I am in favor of democracy."
Later, Obama sat beside Castro at a baseball game between Cuba's beloved national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of America's Major League Baseball. Leaving the game early for Jose Marti International Airport, Obama was met there again by Castro who walked him to Air Force One.
They chatted in relaxed fashion, any awkwardness or tension apparently gone from the previous day's news conference that saw Castro hit with tough questions from US reporters.
How quickly political change comes to Cuba, if at all, is uncertain. But the response from at least some Cubans was certain to be seen by Obama as validation of his belief that restoring ties and facilitating more interactions between Cuba and the United States is more likely than continued estrangement to spur democracy.
"What the United States was doing was not working," Obama said. He reiterated his call for the US Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an "outdated burden on the Cuban people" – a condemnation that was enthusiastically cheered by the crowd at Havana's Grand Theater.
The US President's visit was a crowning moment in his and Castro's bold bid to restore ties after a half-century diplomatic freeze. While deep differences persist, officials from both countries are in regular contact, major US companies are lining up to invest in Cuba, and travel restrictions that largely blocked Americans from visiting have been loosened.