HAVANA (AP) — President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged Cubans to look to the future with hope, casting his historic visit to the communist nation as a moment to “bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas.”
Obama’s address opened a whirlwind final day on the island that includes a meeting with Cuban dissidents and attendance at a baseball game featuring the country’s beloved national team — events made possible by the normalization of U.S. and Cuban relations 15 months ago.
“Havana is only 90 miles from Florida, but to get here we had to travel a great distance,” Obama said during his address at Havana’s Grand Theater.
Despite the enthusiasm in both the U.S. and Cuba about the new relationship between the former foes, Obamaacknowledged the deep differences that persist, including on human rights and democracy. With Cuban President Raul Castro looking on from a balcony, he called for citizens to be able to “speak their minds without fear” and pick their leaders in free and fair elections.
The president was cheered enthusiastically when he reiterated his call for the U.S. Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an “outdated burden on the Cuban people.”
The embargo is loathed on the island. During a joint appearance with Obama on Monday, Castro called it “the most important obstacle” to Cuba’s economic growth.”
Obama’s last day in Cuba was shadowed by the horrific attacks in Brussels, where scores of people were killed in explosions at the airport and a metro station. The president opened his remarks by vowing to do “whatever is necessary” to support Belgium.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has sought to refocus U.S. foreign policy on areas like Latin America that have received less attention than the turmoil in the Middle East and the terrorism emanating from the region. The White House hopes that restoring ties with Cuba will benefit U.S. relations with other countries in Latin America, which have long bristled at Washington’s freeze with Havana.
Critics of Obama’s policy say he’s given up too much with too little in return from Cuba, particularly on the issue of human rights. White House officials pointed to the president’s meeting with dissidents Tuesday as a sign of Obama’s focus on Cuban repression, saying that allowing the gathering was a prerequisite for his entire visit.
It was unclear exactly which Cuban dissidents would attend the meeting at the U.S. Embassy, a matter of much speculation and scrutiny here ahead of the president’s trip. Though Cuba has been criticized for briefly detaining demonstrators thousands of times a year, its practice of handing down long prison sentences has diminished dramatically in recent years.
The issue of political prisoners is hugely important to Cuban-Americans in the U.S. and to the international community. Yet most people on the island are more concerned about the shortage of goods and their own struggles with local bureaucracy.
Obama’s address was carried live on Cuba’s tightly controlled state television, offering him a rare, unfettered opportunity to speak directly to the country’s citizens about his vision for the future. He revisited America’s painful history with Cuba, but kept his attention mostly on the future.
“It is time now for us to leave the past behind,” he said.
As Obama pushed for democracy in Cuba, he made clear that political change rarely comes easily, pointing to America’s own turbulent history. But he held up the current presidential election in the U.S. as an example of how progress can be made over time.
“Just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that’s taking place right now,” he said. “You have 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.”
Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of Cuban descent, have sought the GOP nomination, though Rubio ended his campaign earlier this month. The Democratic contest is between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist.
Since arriving in Havana Sunday, Obama has blended his official events in Cuba with opportunities to soak in the country’s culture, including a tour of the old city. He was closing his visit by joining baseball-crazed Cubans at the Latin American Stadium for a game between the Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball’s American League and Cuba’s national team.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi contributed to this report.