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Obama: Time to bury 'last remnants' of Cold War in Americas

Published 22/03/2016

President Obama and his wife Michelle talk with Cuban president Raul Castro as they arrive for a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana (AP)
President Obama and his wife Michelle talk with Cuban president Raul Castro as they arrive for a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana (AP)

US President Barack Obama capped his historic trip to Cuba by declaring an end to the "last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas".

With Cuban President Raul Castro watching from a balcony, Mr 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, he 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," Mr Obama said. "But I'm appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new."

Mr Obama believes 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," Mr Obama said. He reiterated his call for the US Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an "outdated burden on the Cuban people" - a condemnation that was enthusiastically cheered by the crowd at Havana's Grand Theatre.

The president's visit was a crowning moment in his and Mr 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 US companies are lining up to invest in Cuba, and travel restrictions that largely blocked Americans from visiting have been loosened.

After arriving on Sunday, Mr Obama plunged into a whirlwind schedule that blended official talks with Mr Castro and opportunities to soak in Cuba's culture. He toured historic sites in Old Havana in a rain storm, ate at one of the city's most popular privately owned restaurants and joined baseball-crazed Cubans on Tuesday for a game between the cherished national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball.

The crowd roared as Mr Obama and his family entered the stadium, which underwent an extensive upgrade for the game. Mr Castro joined the Obama family at the game and sat alongside the president behind home plate - one of several moments from the US president's trip that would have been barely imaginable just months ago.

On Tuesday the president also met with about a dozen dissidents, praising them for showing "extraordinary courage". The group included journalist Miriam Celaya, lawyer Laritza Diversent and activists Manuel Cuesta and Jose Daniel Ferrer.

The White House said the meeting was a prerequisite for Mr 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.

Mr Obama's speech was the first opportunity for Cubans to hear his vision of warming US-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 emphasised the role and rights of the state".

Mr 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.

As Mr Obama was preparing to leave Cuba after his three day visit, Mr Castro appeared on the tarmac at Jose Marti International Airport to see him off - after failing to greet Mr Obama there on his arrival.

The send-off was seen as a warm gesture as Mr Obama heads to Argentina.

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