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In Cuba, Obama Calls For Burying ‘Last Remnant’ Of Cold War
By JULIE PACE AND MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN Associated Press
Published March 24, 2016

Obama: Cuba Visit Marks Time to End Cold War

President Barack Obama shakes hands with with Cuban President Raul Castro during their meeting at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama shakes hands with with Cuban President Raul Castro during their meeting at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Capping his remarkable visit to Cuba, 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 this communist nation 90 miles from the Florida coast.

With Cuban President Raul Castro watching from a balcony, 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, 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.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro wave to cheering fans as they arrive for a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The crowd roared as Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro entered the stadium and walked toward their seats in the VIP section behind home plate. It's the first game featuring an MLB team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played in the country in 1999. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro wave to cheering fans as they arrive for a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The crowd roared as Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro entered the stadium and walked toward their seats in the VIP section behind home plate. It’s the first game featuring an MLB team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played in the country in 1999. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

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.

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Juan Francisco Ugarte, Oliva, a 71-year-old retired refrigeration technician, said the American president “dared to say in the presence of the leaders, of Raul Castro, that (Cubans) had the right to protest peacefully without being beaten or arrested.”

Omardy Isaac, a 43-year-old who works in a gift shop, said, “Cubans need all of their rights and I am in favor of democracy.”

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.

Cuban President Raul Castro, right, cheers next to U.S. President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and their daughters Sasha and Malia, at the start of a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The crowd roared as Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro entered the stadium and walked toward their seats in the VIP section behind home plate. It's the first game featuring an MLB team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played in the country in 1999. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP)

Cuban President Raul Castro, right, cheers next to U.S. President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and their daughters Sasha and Malia, at the start of a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The crowd roared as Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro entered the stadium and walked toward their seats in the VIP section behind home plate. It’s the first game featuring an MLB team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played in the country in 1999. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP)

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.

“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.

The president’s visit was a crowning 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.

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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.

President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle pose for a picture with Cuba's President Raul Castro as they arrive for a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. Laying bare a half-century of tensions, Obama and Castro prodded each other Monday over human rights and the long-standing U.S. economic embargo during a joint news conference. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle pose for a picture with Cuba’s President Raul Castro as they arrive for a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. Laying bare a half-century of tensions, Obama and Castro prodded each other Monday over human rights and the long-standing U.S. economic embargo during a joint news conference. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The fans roared as Obama and his family entered the stadium, which underwent an extensive upgrade for the game. Castro joined the Obama family and sat alongside the president behind home plate – one of several moments from the U.S. president’s trip that would have been barely imaginable just months ago.

Obama also met Tuesday with about a dozen dissidents, praising them for showing “extraordinary courage.” The group included journalist Miriam Celaya, attorney Laritza Diversent and activists Manuel Cuesta and Jose Daniel Ferrer.

The White House said the meeting was a prerequisite for Obama in coming to Cuba. Yet the gathering did little to appease those who say he hasn’t gotten enough human rights concessions from the Castro government to justify the American economic investment expected to pour into the island.

Cubans have been riveted by 15 months of changes in their country’s relationship with the United States. But they’ve learned of it almost entirely through state-run media who have focused on two primary themes – the embargo’s continued responsibility for Cuban economic problems and the importance of Cuba changing at its own pace, not one imposed by Washington.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet children and families of U.S. embassy personnel during an event at the Melia Habana Hotel in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet children and families of U.S. embassy personnel during an event at the Melia Habana Hotel in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. Obama’s trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro’s ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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.”

Obama’s last day in Cuba was shadowed by the horrific attacks in Brussels, where scores of people were killed in explosions at the airport and a metro station. The president opened his remarks by vowing to do “whatever is necessary” to support Belgium.

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman, Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi contributed to this report.

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