HAVANA — President Obama addressed the Cuban people from an iconic theater in Old Havana on Tuesday March 22, promising a new chapter in the history of Cuba, its relations with the United States, and the Western Hemisphere.
“I am here to bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas. I am here to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” Obama said in an historic speech covered by USA TODAY and many other international media outlets.
But Obama also made clear there were still serious issues that need to be resolved before he can convince Congress to lift the 54-year-old embargo, still a major sticking point in U.S.-Cuban relations.
“Now, I want to be clear: The differences between our governments over these many years are real, and they are important. I’m sure President Castro would say the same thing,” he said, acknowledging Cuban President Raul Castro, who watched the speech from a box seat. ” I know, because I’ve heard him address those differences at length.”
But the applause was more subdued when he continued that “even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”
That statement received approval only from the corners of the theater, as Obama urged Cuba to eliminate its two-currency system and allow access to the Internet on all parts of the island.
Obama’s speech carried with it more than a century of historical baggage. Obama acknowledged that U.S. battleships crossed the Florida straights to exert control over Cuba, while Cuban revolutionaries came the other way. He called the U.S. and Cuba “shadowboxers in a geopolitical struggle.”
“Havana is only 90 miles from Florida, but for us to get here we had to travel a great distance, over barriers of history and ideology,” he said.
Obama’s keynote address in Cuba was also littered with cultural references — from poet Jose Marti, writer Ernest Hemingway, baseball great Jackie Robinson and singer Gloria Estefan. Obama said the United States and Cuba were “like two brothers who have been estranged for many years, even though we share the same blood.”
Obama portrayed the United States as an example for a Democratic Cuba but noted that democracy can be frustrating and messy. He delighted the audience when he that the current presidential race had featured two Cuban-American Republicans running against a woman and a Democratic socialist.
Obama spoke at the Great Theatre of Havana, built in 1838 and home to the Cuban National Ballet. It’s the same place that President Calvin Coolidge — the last U.S. president to visit Havana — told a Pan-American Conference in 1928 that “all of the Americas have an eternal bond of unity, a common heritage bequeathed to us alone.”
Dozens of U.S. members of Congress attended Obama’s speech, which aides described as the rhetorical high point of his history-making, 48-hour visit to try to further normalize relations with the country.
The speech to the Cuban people was nationally televised to the 11 million Cuban people on the communist-controlled island. But just as important, Obama advisers said, are the 1.6 million Cuban-Americans back home, many of whom are skeptical of Obama’s warming of relations to the Castro regime that caused many of their families to flee the island over the last half century.
Obama aides said the speech may be single most important event in the already history-making trip.
Since a 2014 re-engagement brokered by Pope Francis, Obama has reopened theU.S. embassy in Havana, allowed more non-tourist travel, removed restrictions on sending money, and opened the door to airline and cruise routes.
But with Congress in Republican hands, Obama can’t lift the 54-year-old embargo that prohibits most trade, travel and tourism on the island.
But those Cuban-Americans are essential for the success of Obama’s Cuba policy, Rhodes said. That’s in part because of their political clout but also because of their support for family members who can become self-employed, fostering what Obama hopes is an economic, social and political renaissance in Cuba.
After the speech, Obama will meet with civil society leaders, including some dissidents whose release the United States has insisted on.
Finally, Obama wraps up his 48-hour trip to Havana by taking in a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. He departs for two days in Argentina on Tuesday afternoon.
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