Crowning a remarkable visit to Cuba, United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday declared an end to the "last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas" and openly urged the Cuban people to pursue a more democratic future for their nation 90 miles from Miami. He also sent a strong message to his critics back in the US.
With Cuban President Raul Castro watching from a balcony at Havana's Grand Theater, Obama said the government should not fear citizens who speak freely and vote for their own leaders. And with Cubans watching on tightly controlled state television the Spanish translation of the speech, Obama said they would be the ones to determine their country's future, not the United States.
"Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down," Obama said. "But I'm appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new."
"Sí se puede," President Obama told the Cuban people promising a new beginning and recalled his 2008 slogan, "Yes we can." He added to those watching him on television across the island that "it won’t be easy. . . . It will take time," but "we can make this journey as friends and as neighbors and as family."
On the streets of Havana, the president's address sparked extraordinarily rare public discussions about democracy, and some anger with Cuba's leaders. Cubans are used to complaining bitterly about economic matters but rarely speak publicly about any desire for political change, particularly in conversations with foreign journalists.
"What the United States was doing was not working," Obama said. He reiterated his call for the U.S. Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an "outdated burden on the Cuban people" — a condemnation that was enthusiastically cheered by the crowd at Havana's Grand Theater.
But Obama threw down a very public gauntlet to Castro, saying Cubans cannot realize their full potential if his government does not allow change and relax its grip on Cuban politics and society.
"I believe citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear," Obama told the audience on the final day of his visit. "Voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections."
"Not everybody agrees with me on this, not everybody agrees with the American people on this but I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they’re the rights of the American people, the Cuban people and people around the world," Obama said.
"If you can't access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential," Obama said. "And over time, the youth will lose hope."
Obama's speech was the first opportunity for Cubans to hear his vision of warming U.S.-Cuban relations as closely linked to Cuba's internal evolution. It's a vision of free speech, free assembly and the ability to earn a living without relying on a centrally controlled economy.
The president appeared to deliberately use neutral terms to describe the Cuban state: "a one-party system" and "a socialist economic model" that "has emphasized the role and rights of the state."
Later, Obama sat beside Castro at a baseball game between Cuba's beloved national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of America's Major League Baseball. Leaving the game early for Jose Marti International Airport, Obama was met there again by Castro who walked him to Air Force One.
They chatted in relaxed fashion, any awkwardness or tension apparently gone from the previous day's news conference that saw Castro hit with tough questions from U.S. reporters.
How quickly political change comes to Cuba, if at all, is uncertain. But the response from at least some Cubans was certain to be seen by Obama as validation of his belief that restoring ties and facilitating more interactions between Cuba and the United States is more likely than continued estrangement to spur democracy.
Obama's visit was a crucial moment in his and Castro's bold bid to restore ties after a half-century diplomatic freeze. While deep differences persist, officials from both countries are in regular contact, major U.S. companies are lining up to invest in Cuba, and travel restrictions that largely blocked Americans from visiting have been loosened.
After arriving Sunday, Obama plunged into a whirlwind schedule that blended official talks with Castro and opportunities to soak in Cuba's culture. He toured historic sites in Old Havana in a rainstorm, ate at one of the city's most popular privately owned restaurants and joined a big crowd for Tuesday's baseball game.
The fans roared as Obama and his family entered the stadium, which underwent an extensive upgrade for the game. Castro sat alongside the Obama family behind home plate, one of several moments from the U.S. president's trip that would have been barely imaginable just months ago.
At the exhibition game, Obama introduced Derek Jeter, Joe Torre and other figures of Major League Baseball to Cuban counterparts.
The game was organized in recent weeks as MLB has been trying to work out a deal with Cuban authorities that would allow the country's athletes and others to work in the U.S. without having to defect. The current system is fraught with stories of escape and human trafficking, and also makes it hard for Cuban expatriates to return home to work or visit.