President Barack Obama took full advantage of his landmark opportunity Tuesday to speak directly to the Cuban people, appealing for political liberty, freedom of speech and economic reform.
With Cuba’s dictators in the audience, Obama pointedly declared that “voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections” and that “citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear, to organize and to criticize their government and protest peacefully.”
To Cuba’s people, he offered a hand of friendship, said he lifted trade and travel restrictions to improve their daily lives, but said it’s up to them to change their country. “It is time now for us to leave the past behind,” he said.
Wrapping up the first visit to the Caribbean island by a sitting U.S. president since 1928, he met later Tuesday with political dissidents and attended a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.
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While Obama’s speech was overshadowed by the terrorist attack in Brussels, it was truly historic. Also remarkable in its own right was the joint press conference Monday that Obama held with Cuban leader Raul Castro, who rarely takes questions from independent reporters. And the most striking was the difference between their outlooks.
Castro focused on old grievances such as the return of the Guantanamo Bay naval base, complained about a double standard on human rights and, unbelievably, claimed there were no political prisoners in his country.
Obama – while not ignoring the huge differences that remain – looked to the future and spoke optimistically about business, educational and cultural ties blossoming between Americans and Cubans.
The delegation accompanying the president included about 40 members of Congress. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California are urging Obama’s transportation secretary to approve regular commercial flights between Havana and Los Angeles, home to the nation’s fourth-largest Cuban-American community.
Not too long from now, the Castros will pass away – and many of their antiquated ways with them. The Cuban people are thirsty for social and economic progress, and the regime can’t stop it.
And while some Republicans and Cuban American hard-liners oppose Obama’s moves, it makes less and less sense to continue the Cold War with Cuba.
He used his executive powers to re-establish diplomatic relations, including reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana. But only the Republican-controlled Congress can lift the trade embargo. That isn’t going to happen – and shouldn’t – until Cuba expands political, economic and social freedoms.
Obama wants this opening to Cuba to be part of his legacy, but it’s not safely set in stone. His term ends in January. Castro has pledged to step down in 2018. It’s up to the next president and next Cuban leader to build on the progress so far.