Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
People take pictures of US President Obama (c.) as he attends a meeting with entrepreneurs as part of his three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana, Monday.

Obama takes message of democracy directly to the people of Cuba

President Obama's visit to Cuba is part of his administration’s larger efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations, driven by the notion that engagement, rather than years of isolation, will empower Cubans and ultimately bring about change.

President Obama ends his three-day visit to Cuba with a televised speech Tuesday emphasizing the merits of democracy and casting a spotlight on the political climate and economic deprivation in the island nation.

Mr. Obama urged Cubans to look to the future and seize on the changing relationship between the two countries as a moment to "bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas."

The president’s visit to Cuba is part of his administration’s larger efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations, driven by the notion that engagement, rather than years of isolation, will empower Cubans and ultimately bring about change. His meeting with Cuban dissidents, and critics of President Raúl Castro, a prerequisite for the trip, was intended to push back on Mr. Obama’s critics who have accused him of rewarding a system whose limits on dissent run counter to American values.

"The United States will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy, including the right of the Cuban people to decide their own future," Obama said Monday, standing next to Castro in the Palace of the Revolution. "We'll speak out on behalf of universal human rights, including freedom of speech and assembly and religion."

During an extraordinary joint news conference Monday, American journalists grilled Mr. Castro about the slow pace of change in Cuba and detention of political prisoners, a shocking moment in a communist country where few publicly question the authority of Raul Castro or his brother, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

"This is pure history," Marlene Pino, a Havana engineer, told the Associated Press. The last US president to visit the island was Calvin Coolidge. He arrived in Cuba nearly a century ago aboard a battleship.

There was no mention of the exchange between American journalists and the Cuban president. Though the country has been criticized for its practice of detaining demonstrators, the current Castro administration has softened the policy of long jail sentences.

The issue of political prisoners is of particular importance to Cuban-Americans and the international community. Most of the local residents, however, are more concerned about dealing with the shortage of goods and the local bureaucracy.

The US administration moved to normalize relations with Cuba 15 months ago, yet the US economic embargo is largely still in place. Each side has made strides to ease the relations, but the US isn’t satisfied with Mr. Raul’s pace for change. The Cuban president’s hesitance is due to the fact that US Congress is still largely opposed to lifting the embargo.

Cuban officials warned Mr. Obama against bypassing the government and lobbying Cubans directly. But the televised speech Tuesday morning was seen by millions of Cubans, giving the president a chance to lay out his vision for Cuba's future.

The president was cheered enthusiastically Tuesday at Havana's Grand Theater when he reiterated his call for the US Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an "outdated burden on the Cuban people."

Before departing Cuba on Tuesday afternoon for Argentina, Obama and his family will to attend a baseball game at Havana's Latin American Stadium between the Cuban national team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays, cheering in the stands alongside baseball-crazed Cubans.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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