Obama to give message of reconciliation directly to Cuban people in public address

Washington: US President Barack Obama will take a message of reconciliation directly to the Cuban people next week, delivering a public address billed as the keystone of an historic visit to the communist-ruled island.

Obama will on Sunday become the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba, a trip his advisors say will be heavily focused on taking his message to the public.

The centerpiece will be an address Tuesday at the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso, which the White House hopes will be televised across the country.

"We see this speech as a unique moment in the history between our countries," said Ben Rhodes, the architect of Obama's opening to Cuba and a senior foreign policy advisor.

It will be "an opportunity for him to describe the course we are on, to review the complicated history between our countries."

The address will also "look forward to the future and to lay out his vision on how the United States and Cuba can work together, how the Cuban people can continue to pursue a better life."

Obama has championed engagement with Cuba, and diplomatic relations between the Cold War foes were restored in July of last year.

Obama to give message of reconciliation directly to Cuban people in public address

President Barack Obama. Representational image. AFP

The president and his family will kick off their visit on Sunday evening with events in Old Havana, playing a visit to Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who helped broker secret talks between the two governments.

The next morning Obama will tour a memorial to national icon Jose Marti.

Marti, a writer and independence hero beloved by Cubans of all political hues, lived in New York for years, battling for Cuba's independence from colonial Spain from exile.

His memorial stands on Revolution Square, in the shadow of a monument to that other icon of Cuba, Che Guevara - the archetypal guerrilla fighter who shared Marti's suspicions of US influence in the hemisphere.

Obama is slated to meet President Raul Castro on Monday, and officials are promising "very candid" discussions about areas of disagreement, including human rights abuses and political freedom.

There are no plans to meet his brother Fidel, who ruled Cuba for decades and was long America's communist bogeyman.

Obama will also meet specially invited members of civil society on the trip, including political activists.

"It remains very much a system of one party, a system in which you continue to have detentions of harassment of activists," said Rhodes.

But for all the talk about rights, the White House is betting that opening Cuba's economy to US trade and its airports to US travelers will pry open the one-party regime.

Business and entrepreneurship will feature prominently during a town hall meeting with Cubans on Monday.

"Our general sense is that the Cubans are moving in a direction and the question is 'what is the speed and ambition with which they are pursuing their economic reforms?'"

"We believe that those reforms can ultimately open up greater opportunities to the Cuban people... improve the lives of the Cuban people and in some cases will certainly be empowering in terms of providing them with great access to information and connectivity with the wider world."

Obama will round of his visit by watching a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team.

The two countries share a common love of the game, Rhodes said.

The last major league team to visit Cuba was the Baltimore Orioles, who played an exhibition against the Cuban national team on 28 March 1999.

Dozens of Cubans play baseball in the United States, including a significant number who defected.


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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2016 08:04:20 IST

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