President Obama stood before the Cuban people on the last day of his historic trip, offering the citizens of the island nation a “saludo de paz.” After engaging with the Cuban government, entrepreneurs, and the faith community, Obama took an opportunity to speak to the people he sees as having the most at stake under the decades-long embargo.
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” President Obama said Tuesday. “I have come here to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
The lengthy speech aligned with the people-to-people diplomacy that he has engaged in on major foreign trips throughout his presidency. During recent trips to India and Kenya the president has delivered tailored messages directly to the people of each nation. In India, he stressed the importance of women’s rights and religious liberty. In Kenya, he prescribed a path forward that was free of corruption and stifling traditions in a speech directed at young people.
And in Cuba, the president declared that “it is time now to leave the past behind,” in a speech geared as much toward Cuban-Americans as it was to the people tuning in on the island.
The two countries, Obama said were like “two brothers who’ve been estranged for many years,” an all-too-familiar analogy to Cuban-Americans who sought refuge in the U.S. at the start of the revolution and have only recently been permitted to return. “This is not just about politics. This is about family,” he added.
Five decades of isolation and nearly nine decades since the last visit of a U.S. President made for an interesting, boundary pushing trip.
In the speech and meetings with Cuban President Raul Castro on Monday, the president stressed that his goal was to end the decades-long embargo that the U.S. has in place. On Monday he definitively declared that it wasn’t a matter of if, but when, despite the calls out from opponents back home who are reeling at the thought of opening markets to Cuba.
He also took the opportunity to call out the Cuban government for human rights abuses, specifically the government’s forceful efforts to silence dissent. It was on display before the Obamas’ arrival, when the government rounded up protesters for arbitrary detention. It was on display again during statements to the press, when President Raúl Castro flat-out denied the existence of political prisoners. The differences between the two countries, Obama said, were real and important, but that will not keep them from engaging and embracing their commonalities—like both countries’ love for baseball.
In his speech, Obama sought to answer the question at the front of many peoples’ minds—why now? The U.S.’s embargo hadn’t worked and the time had come to reverse it, he said. “We have to have the courage to acknowledge that truth,” he said. “The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them. We should not fear change, we should embrace it.”
There was, however, one fundamental change the president urged the Cuban government to embrace: the idea that a country is stronger when it’s people are free to express themselves freely. The Cuban government, a single party system that operates on a socialist economy, has been known to stifle the voices of its opponents and reject change. Obama spoke directly to Castro to say that the U.S. had no intention of imposing its beliefs on Cuba, while strongly encouraging the government to accept them.
“I can’t force you to agree. I believe that every person should be equal under the law,” Obama said. “Citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear.”
Obama said that the process of democracy can be frustrating, using the 2016 campaign to replace him as an example. But he also used the presidential election as proof that the process is powerful given that two Cuban-Americans were running to replace him, a mixed race man of humble beginnings, and they could have faced either a woman or a democratic socialist as their general election opponent. “That’s a measure of our progress,” he said.
But the future of the Cuban people, he said, is in the hands of the country’s young people who he hopes will use their voices and talents to shape a new path forward.
“Our grandchildren will look back on period of isolation as an aberration, one chapter in a longer story of family and of friendship,” Obama said. “I’m hopeful for the future because i trust that the Cuban people will make a difference.”
Before leaving the stage to meet with Cuban dissidents and members of civil society he repeated a line that harkens back to his 2008 campaign for the presidency, “si se puede”—yes, we can.