Speaking in a televised address, Mr Obama told the 84-year-old Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who was watching from a balcony of the Gran Teatro in central Havana, that he “need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people”.
“But I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new.” in the country, he said.
The speech was the centre-point of Mr Obama’s three-day visit to Havana — the first by an American president in 88 years — which was designed to accelerate his efforts to normalise relations to Cuba. In front of an audience of 1,000 people from both countries, Mr Obama was warmly received, although his sharper comments about the country’s political system were applauded by only the large American delegation.
The divide over political values was evident on Monday at an often awkward press conference when Mr Castro denied that there were any political prisoners in Cuba in response to a question from an American reporter.
By speaking directly to the Cuban people, the administration hopes the president can help pry open some aspects of the Cuban political and economic systems, although Mr Obama was also very careful in his speech to acknowledge legitimate criticisms about the US.
He said that Mr Castro had long drawn attention to economic inequality and racial discrimination in the US. “That’s just a sample. He has a much longer list,” Mr Obama joked. But he said that “I welcome this open debate” and admitted “we do have too much money in American politics”.
As well as the speech, Mr Obama was to meet on Tuesday with a group of activists and dissidents and to attend a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.
Appealing for reconciliation between Cubans in both countries, he said Cuban exiles in the US carry a “memory of a painful and sometimes violent separation”.
“They love Cuba and a part of them still consider this their true home,” he went on. “This is not just about politics. This is about family.”
“This is about the memory of a home that was lost, the desire to rebuild a broken bond, the hope for a better future, the hope for return and reconciliation,” he said.
Mr Obama’s emotional reference to émigré Cubans drew tears from many watchers in Miami.
But critics poured scorn on the visit. “Obama says Raúl Castro seeks change in Cuba. What a fantasy!” tweeted Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Others, such as Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard, a Cuban American, wrote with more nuance about his family’s emotional distaste at the visit.
“The embargo didn’t work. I get it. ….[But] you’ll forgive us if we aren’t much in the mood to play ball with a dictator who still has blood on his hands, no matter how much ESPN and Obama . . . dress it up,” he wrote.
Polls show overall Cuban-American support for the embargo has fallen steadily, from 48 per cent in 2014 from 87 per cent in 1991. Indeed, as a sign of the changing times, accompanying Mr Obama on his trip are a group of influential Cuban-American businessmen, including Carlos Gutierrez, former commerce secretary to George W Bush, who for years opposed rapprochement but now actively support it. (FT.Com)