In Cuba, Obama finishes ‘Cold War,’ pushes reform


Thu, Mar 24, 2016 - Page 7

Capping his remarkable visit to Cuba, US President Barack Obama on Tuesday declared an end to the “last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas” and openly urged Cubans to pursue a more democratic future for this communist nation about 145km from the Florida coast.

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.

With Cubans watching on tightly controlled state television, Obama said they would be the ones to determine their country’s future, not the US.

“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.”

Later, Obama sat beside Castro at a baseball game between Cuba’s beloved national team and the Tampa Bay Rays, a US Major League Baseball team.

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 a 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. However, 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 US 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He reiterated his call for US Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an “outdated burden on the Cuban people” — a condemnation that was enthusiastically cheered by the crowd at Havana’s Grand Theater.

After arriving on Sunday, Obama plunged into a whirlwind schedule that blended official talks with Castro and opportunities to soak in Cuba’s culture.

He toured historic sites in Old Havana in a rainstorm, ate at one of the city’s most popular privately owned restaurants and joined a big crowd for Tuesday’s baseball game.

The fans roared as Obama and his family entered the stadium, which underwent an extensive upgrade for the game.

Castro joined the Obama family and sat alongside the president behind home plate — one of several moments from the US president’s trip that would have been barely imaginable just months ago.

Obama also met on Tuesday with about a dozen dissidents, praising them for showing “extraordinary courage.”

The group included journalist Miriam Celaya, attorney Laritza Diversent and activists Manuel Cuesta and Jose Daniel Ferrer.

The White House said the meeting was a prerequisite for Obama in coming to Cuba.

Obama’s speech was the first opportunity for Cubans to hear his vision of warming US-Cuban relations as closely linked to Cuba’s internal evolution.

It is a vision of free speech, free assembly and the ability to earn a living without relying on a centrally controlled economy.

The president appeared to deliberately use neutral terms to describe the Cuban state: “A one-party system” and “a socialist economic model” that “has emphasized the role and rights of the state.”