Havana: US President Barack Obama on Tuesday told Cubans in an unprecedented live television address that he had come to the communist island to "bury" their decades of Cold War conflict.
On the last day of his historic visit to Cuba, the US leader laid out his vision for ending a standoff that began at the end of the 1950s when Fidel Castro and his leftist guerrillas drove out a US-backed government, and then became a fierce Soviet ally.
Obama earned repeated cheers and applause from the audience at the ornate Gran Teatro in Havana, which included Cuban President Raul Castro, as millions of Cubans watched on state-run television.
"I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas," Obama said.
"Creo en el pueblo cubano," he said, then repeating himself in English: "I believe in the Cuban people."
Obama was cheered again when he called for Congress to lift the US embargo that has been in place for decades in a failed attempt to bring the communist government in Havana to its knees.
"It is an outdated burden on the Cuban people. It's a burden on the Americans who want to work and do business or invest here in Cuba," he said. "It's time to lift the embargo."
But Obama did not shy from criticising Cuba's lack of political liberty, saying that the future would not depend on the United States but on homegrown change.
"I believe citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear, to organise and to criticize their government," he said.
"Yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections."
Each call for greater freedoms received applause — an extraordinary event in a theater where the all-powerful Castro sat watching.
Immediately after the speech, Obama was due to meet at the US embassy with dissidents who are regularly harassed and sometimes arrested in Cuba.
Obama and Castro have been careful to highlight their rapprochement during the US president's three-day trip, which was to end later Tuesday with a bit of baseball diplomacy — a friendly game between the Cuban national team and Major League's Tampa Bay Rays, symbolising the countries' shared love of the sport.
However, tension erupted Monday when the subject of human rights in the one-party state came up at a joint press conference, illustrating what Castro called "profound differences."
Castro went on to attack the United States for bringing up the human rights question when, he said, US rights were themselves inadequate when it comes to health care, social security, and "double standards."
Castro also said that Washington needs to return sovereignty over Guantanamo, a corner of Cuba under US control and the location for a controversial US military prison housing foreigners allegedly involved in terrorism.
Question of legitimacy
Obama, a Democrat with less than a year left in power, has been criticised by Republicans and human rights representatives over his opening to Cuba.
But he told ABC television in the United States on Monday after his talks with Castro that the policy was already bearing fruit, by forcing the isolated state to engage.
"If you think about today's press conference, as far as I can tell, that may be the first time that Raul Castro's ever stood in front of not just US press, but also Cuban press and answered questions," he said.
"That could not have happened unless we had changed this policy."
Obama said that proof of his toughness on the issue was that the Castro government, which controls all important aspects of Cuban politics, had not been allowed a veto on the list of dissidents invited to Tuesday's embassy meeting.
"We were very clear we're going to meet with who it is we want to meet," he told ABC.
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Updated Date: Mar 22, 2016 20:59:41 IST