|I took this photo as I made my way down a recently repaved back street leading to the Estadio Latinoamericano to attend the juego de pelota between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team|
March 22, 2016 - Ted Henken
Wifi hotspot, corner of 23 & L, Havana, Cuba - With a rousing, historic speech in Havana's Alicia Alonso Grand Theater to a packed, expectant, and very appreciative crowd President Barack Obama launched a new era in US-Cuban relations today.
Peppered with multiple words and phrases spoken in a fluent Cuban Spanish and filled with frequent allusions to the two countries' shared history of conflict and collaboration, Obama's speech was met with frequent, and sustained applause from the Cuban audience especially following his many references to and quotes of the Cuban "apostle," poet and independence leader José Martí.
Indeed, after noting his resolve to continue to fight international terrorism following the attacks in Brussels today, Obama began his speech with the Spanish words: "Cultivo una rosa blanca," a line from a favorite Martí poem about friendship. Obama noted that the fraternal spirit of Martí is a great model to employ in the ongoing reconciliation between Cuba and the US in that Martí offered his white rose of friendship and peace to his friends and enemies alike.
While the speech was a model of diplomatic courtesy and respect given that Obama began by directly thanking Raul Castro and the Cuban government for the gracious welcome they had extended to him and his family, the US president did not shy away from clearly expressing his belief in what he called universal human rights and democratic ideals. Quoting Martí's words: "Freedom is the right of every man to be honest and think and speak without hypocrisy," Obama laid out his vision of a future where every Cuban would be equal under the law, children could count on quality education and health care, and access to food and housing. But he also emphasized the need to respect the right to speak without fear, to recognize the legitimacy of dissent and the ability to openly criticize the government, an end to arbitrary detentions, and the value of free and democratic elections.
Obama openly recognized the many flaws in US society but argued that democracy was the civil and open debate that societies need to confront and find solutions to such problems. He referenced the popular mobilizations of the 1960s civil rights movement as an example for Cuba where people came together to organize, protest, and challenge the system non-violently creating a path forward for positive change.
In what was perhaps his best line, Obama referenced the current, chaotic US presidential election. But instead of using it to highlight the flaws of American-style democracy, he pointed out that only in America could two Cuban-American children of immigrants, run against the record of a sitting African-American president, while a woman challenged a democratic socialist!
The speech was also notable in that it was addressed directly to and celebrated the ingenuity and sacrifice of the people of Cuba, both those on the island and those in the extensive Cuban diaspora abroad. Obama made clear that "el futuro de Cuba está en las manos del pueblo cubano," and highlighted the accomplishments of a new generation of Cuban entrepreneurs, celebrating some by name. He also inclusively honored the sometimes violent pain of the Cuban exile community in the US but noted with pride that if you want to know what Cubans are capable of you need to look no further than the booming city of Miami.
While Obama noted that some had encouraged him to make a "tear down this wall" declaration similar to what President Ronald Reagan had done in East Germany in the late 1980s, he instead declared that he would leave Cuba convinced and hopeful that the Cuban people - and especially its youth - had already begun "lift something up and build something new," including bridges to a shared and prosperous future.
He also celebrated the state-to-state collaboration between the two nations that had produced successful outcomes in combating Ebola in West Africa, peace in Colombia, and a shared honor of the life of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, repeating a rousing line from his December 17, 2014 speech: "Todos somos Americanos"
He stated that his administration had worked quickly to remove obstacles to such progress and collaboration, calling once again on the U.S. Congress to repeal the outdated embargo. However, he also noted that even absent the external embargo, not much would change on the island if the Cuban government did not also begin to remove the many internal restrictions and controls to greater freedom and prosperity for its citizens.
Finally, while he made clear that the U.S. does not seek to impose its economic or governmental system on Cuba and thus that Cuba need not fear the United States, he also spoke directly to President Raúl Castro telling him that given his "commitment to Cuba's sovereignty and self-determination," he need not "fear the different voices of the Cuban people - and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders."