Cuba’s Communist regime should tolerate dissent, criticism and even protests, President Barack Obama told its leaders, in a powerful speech, televised across the island, in which he outlined the benefits of democracy and free markets.
“I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize and to criticize their government and to protest peacefully,” he said. “And that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.”
Raúl Castro sat through most of the speech stone-faced, the Miami Herald notes, but the speech was well-received elsewhere.
“I might agree or disagree with Obama’s approach of establishing new diplomatic relationships with Cuba, but I’m very proud to be Cuban American today,” said Andy Gomez, a respected expert in Washington-Havana relations who moved to Miami with his family in 1961 in one of the first waves of exiles following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
“I thought it was an outstanding speech, an honest speech from his heart. A speech that called out the Cuban government. Two powerful points he made were when he said the principle of any revolution, American or Cuban, is to bring democracy to its people, and then when he said that human rights are universal.”
Obama “made a passionate argument for democracy and free-market principles,” the New York Times noted, while reassuring Castro that the United States did not want to “impose our political or economic system on you.”
“It was a good speech, a brave speech, he said things that the Castros needed to hear,” said Sebastián Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “Most people I’ve spoken to who disagree with Obama’s presence in Cuba, myself included, agree it was good.”
“He spoke of dissent, political assembly and stated clearly that the US is not an obstacle [to progress]. But there is a gap between the president’s policy and those who disagree that’s too wide to be filled by a speech. Beautiful speeches are not going to solve this problem, it’s more complicated than that. He will leave this afternoon and tomorrow Cuba will be the same.”
But, Arcos added: “You cannot craft a foreign policy on hopes and expectations of what a speech will do, you have to do more than that. Yet it is an important step. Obama needed to prove he was willing to say certain hard truths in front of Raúl Castro and he did.”
“Obama was confident and comfortable and he looked open, young, and smart. Raúl Castro looked old, uncomfortable and authoritarian. It was a nice contrast.”
But some dissidents were less impressed.
“How can he talk of a new era when we are stuck with the same old dictator. It’s a contradiction,” said Ailer González, a leading member of the Forum for Rights and Freedom. “And how can we forget the past when there is no justice, no talk of who created all this pain in the first place,” she tells the Guardian.
Obama’s speech “was also an unusually direct engagement with race, a critical and unresolved issue in Cuban society that the revolution was supposed to have erased,” the Times adds.
But observers are divided on the likely impact and consequences of Obama’s visit to the island.
There is a slightly greater chance that a U.S. opening to Cuba will foment positive political change in a way that a 50-year-old failed embargo policy will not. But no one should get their hopes up, Tufts University’s Daniel W. Drezner writes for the Washington Post:
The Castros have not managed to stay in power in Cuba for so long because they don’t know how to direct benefits to key supporters. They will certainly direct the fruits of greater economic engagement to their cronies. No, the truth is that the principal foreign policy benefit of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba isn’t the possibility of Cuban democratization: It’s eliminating a decades-long irritant between the United States and Latin America.
Obama also made a point of praising the ‘courage’ of Cuba’s dissidents after meeting several leading opposition figures (right).
“The Cuban government treats us like we’re not humans,” said Elizardo Sánchez, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. “I know the Cuban government was furious over this meeting. So I think the main objective of President Obama was accomplished — he sent a very clear message of support for human rights and for us.”
The dissidents and civil society leaders who met with him on Tuesday at the United States Embassy in Havana included independent journalists, a women’s group leader, a lawyer and a gay rights advocate, the Times notes:
At least three of the people who attended the hour and 45 minute session are considered conservative — meaning they disagree with Mr. Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Some of them have served long prison sentences, and at least one is known for frequent hunger strikes.
Here is a list of those rights activists and opposition leaders who met with Mr. Obama:
Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Arco Progresista
Berta Soler, Ladies in White
Dagoberto Valdes, Roman Catholic Church lay leader
Elizardo Sánchez, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation
Laritza Diversent, an independent lawyer
José Daniel Ferrer and Antonio González Rodiles, Patriotic Union of Cuba
Guillermo Fariñas, from Santa Clara, Cuba
Miriam Zelaya, an independent blogger
Nelson Alvarez, from Bayamo, Cuba
Ángel Yunier Remón Arzuaga, a rapper and former political prisoner known as The Critic
Juana Mora, a gay rights advocate
Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist
“We’re talking about a man who has a suitcase that can destroy the world, and he took the time to meet with us,” Farinas said, referring to the military aide who travels with the president holding the classified nuclear war plan.
Cuban dissidents interrupted an ESPN broadcast (above) chanting “Freedom for Political Prisoners!” and “Down With Castro!“