In the Grand Theater of Havana, President Barack Obama delivered a speech Tuesday to Cuban civil society in a speech broadcast live throughout the island by radio and television. This was an honor never before granted to a foreign head of state. Until recently, it would have been unthinkable.
Midway through the speech he turned to President Raúl Castro, who was in the hall. “And to President Castro, who I appreciate being here today, I want you to know I believe my visit here demonstrates that you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I’m also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders. In fact, I am hopeful for the future, because I trust that the Cuban people will make the right decisions.”
It was an appeal for democracy in a speech filled with praise for the ideals of “every revolution: America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world.” This was precisely the message he meant to send by visiting the island. What he said was passionate, well-articulated and highly political. But there was meaning also in what wasn’t said: He spoke without consulting notes, looking into the eyes of the public. It was a message centered on reconciliation, saying that the United States has made peace with the government but also with the Cuban people. He concluded, between thunderous applause, “Sí, se puede.” Yes, it can be done.
In general, the speech was well-received by the Cuban public. But not by everyone.
“Obama made no reference to the territory illegally occupied by the U.S. base in Guantanamo, even though our government has explicitly sought its return,” said a representative of the Cuban Women’s Federation. Others were annoyed that Obama would ask Cubans to forget their past without acknowledging America’s aggressive actions. One sociologist pointed out that Obama’s main message seemed to be “continuous praise of the private against the public, the individual against society, against the social redistribution of income.”