HAVANA – President Barack Obama spoke on Tuesday to the Cuban people with a forthright, comprehensive speech in which he called for reconciliation between Cuba and the U.S. and between Cubans on and off the island, while defending democracy as the best way to give citizens a better life.
From the Gran Teatro in Havana, broadcast directly on radio and television from Cuba, the U.S. president said in Spanish: “I believe in the Cuban people” and “The future of Cuba must be in the hands of Cubans,” two phrases that framed his new policy toward the island.
In a message spoken directly to President Raul Castro, who was standing near him, Obama said “I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people.”
“The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution – America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world – those ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy,” Obama said.
“Democracy,” he said, “has given our people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and enjoy a high standard of living.”
He also admitted, however, certain “flaws” in the exercise of some basic rights in the U.S., such as “economic inequality, the death penalty, racial discrimination,” though the fact that democracy is open to debate on these subjects is “healthy.”
Minutes before meeting with dissidents at the U.S. Embassy, Obama observed that a country that follows the rule of law should not permit “arbitrary detentions” of people who exercise their rights “to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully,” a reference to the many cases of repression on the island.
“And yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections,” Obama said.
There were also numerous mentions of the Cuban exile, overwhelmingly concentrated in the United States, people who “love Cuba” and recall with pain and suffering their separation from their country, so that for them, the diplomatic thaw between the two countries that began 15 months ago “is not just about politics. This is about family.”
“So the reconciliation of the Cuban people – the children and grandchildren of revolution, and the children and grandchildren of exile – that is fundamental to Cuba’s future,” Obama said, words that brought loud applause from the audience.
“People are people, and Cubans are Cubans. And I’ve come here – I’ve traveled this distance – on a bridge that was built by Cubans who live on both sides of the Florida Straits,” he said.
Across that bridge, people of the two countries have shared values and culture throughout history. Obama recalled that national hero Jose Marti, a figure equally revered on the island and among exiles, wrote part of his works in New York, while Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway “found inspiration in the waters of these shores.”
The president, who wraps up Tuesday his historic visit to Cuba, said he made the trip to “leave behind the ideological battles of the past” and “to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
He recalled that his decision to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba was based on the fact that the U.S. isolationist policy didn’t work and the embargo hurt Cubans rather than helped them.
About the embargo imposed on the island since 1962, he said it was time that Congress eliminated that policy, but added that for the Cuban economy to take off, the Cuban government must help businesses, for example by making the Internet “available across the island.”