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President Obama Extends ‘a Hand of Friendship’ to Cuban People

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President Obama bookended his historic trip to Cuba by speaking directly to the people he hopes the ongoing rapprochement will benefit.

” I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” Obama said Tuesday to a crowd of Cubans in El Gran Teatro de la Havana. “I have come here to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”

“Our grandchildren will look back on period of isolation as an aberration, one chapter in a longer story of family and of friendship,” he added.

White House officials said beforehand that the speech would be the highlight of the trip—an opportunity for the president to give Cubans a sense of his vision for the future.

“There’s been all this activity and all the debate, and this all churn in different areas,” White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said Monday. “I think he wants to pull that together, explain why he took the steps that he did on December 17th, explain where this is headed, why he believes it will succeed, why he believes that the Cuban people will have a better future.”

The president gave a glimpse of what he hopes that future will look like on Monday, delivering statements to the press about the importance of ending the embargo while criticizing Cuban human rights abuses.

“The U.S. will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy, including the right of the Cuban people to decide their own future,” Obama said Monday. Later, he spoke with Cuban entrepreneurs in an effort to highlight the benefit of giving Cuban people economic opportunity—a meeting also aimed at Republicans in Congress who oppose ending the decades-long embargo that has crippled growth on the island.

Despite the historic nature of the trip (including the president’s ability to get President Raúl Castro to take questions directly from the press at a press conference on Monday) the stark differences between the two countries remain clear. Ahead of the trip the Cuban government, swept the streets for dissidents and vagabonds. Despite the insistence of human rights groups, Castro vehemently denied the existence of political prisoners in the country. In fact, he spent a portion of his statements to the press criticizing the American government for “political manipulation and double standards.”

As much as the president’s speech on Tuesday was aimed at the Cuban people, it was also a speech to the Cuban people in America. Rhodes said the President thinks bridge building and reconnecting Cubans and Cuban Americans is pivotal to their efforts.

“That’s important from a human perspective, from a reconciliation of families perspective,” Rhodes said. “It’s, frankly, also important to Cuba’s future, because there’s a great resource in the Cuban American community. ”

Many opponents believe the trip is sending the wrong signal to the Cuban government.

“If a sitting U.S. president goes and does not make human rights a focal point, it could serve the unintended consequence of pushing the pro-democracy movement into the shadows,” Marion Smith, the executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Fund said.

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