Castro farewells Obama at airport after historic trip

US President Obama leaves Havana after historic trip as Cuban President Castro sees him off at airport

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

US President Barack Obama (C) is accompanied by Cuban President Raul Castro (L) as he and his daughters Malia (R) and Sasha walk to board their plane to fly to Argentina at Jose Marti international airport in Havana on March 22, 2016.

US President Barack Obama left Havana on Tuesday after a historic three-day visit, the first to Cuba by a US leader in nearly nine decades.

Cuban President Raul Castro has shown up on the tarmac at Jose Marti International Airport to see Obama off after a whirlwind three-day trip that began with some interpreting a snub when Castro did not greet Air Force One upon arrival in Havana.

The send-off is a warm gesture that comes after the two leaders sparred at a press conference and frankly discussed longstanding disagreements between the two nations. The two sat next to each other during the early innings of Tuesday's exhibition baseball game before Obama departed for a trip to Argentina.

US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle react along with Cuban President Raul Castro to an exhibition baseball game between the Cuban National team and the MLB Tampa Bay Rays at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana March 22, 2016.

Obama challenged Cuba's Communist government with an impassioned call for democracy and economic reforms on his final day on the island, addressing the Cuban people directly in a historic speech broadcast throughout the country.

Taking the stage at Havana's Grand Theater with Castro in attendance, Obama said he was in Cuba to extend a hand of friendship and "bury the last remnant" of the Cold War in the Americas.

But he also pressed hard for economic and political reforms and greater openness in a one-party state where the government stifles dissent, Internet access is low and the media is in state hands.

His speech was the high point of a 48-hour trip made possible by his agreement with Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba's 1959 revolution, and work to normalize relations.

US President Barack Obama makes a speech to the Cuban people in the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso in Havana, March 22, 2016.

Nonetheless, Obama threw down a very public gauntlet to Castro, saying Cubans cannot realize their full potential if his government does not allow change and relax its grip on Cuban politics and society.

"I believe citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear," Obama told the audience on the final day of his visit. "Voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections."

"Not everybody agrees with me on this, not everybody agrees with the American people on this but I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they're the rights of the American people, the Cuban people and people around the world," Obama said.

The hand-picked audience cheered him repeatedly, especially when he criticized the longstanding US economic embargo against Cuba, spoke glowingly of Cubans' talents and praised the country's achievements in healthcare and education.

The spectacle of the leader of the United States, the superpower to the north for long reviled by Cuba's government, standing in Havana and urging such changes in a speech broadcast into homes across the island would have been unthinkable before the two countries began their rapprochement 15 months ago.

Since then, Obama has repeatedly used his executive powers to relax trade and travel restrictions, while also pushing Cuba to accelerate cautious market-style reforms introduced by Castro and allow greater political and economic freedom.

Castro has welcomed Obama's moves while insisting that a new relationship with the old enemy does not mean Cuba plans to change its political system.

Cuban President Raul Castro (C) listens to US President Barack Obama making a speech to the Cuban people in the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, in Havana March 22, 2016.

Obama drew sustained applause when he reiterated his call for the US Congress to lift the embargo, which he called "an outdated burden on the Cuban people."

But the response was more muted when he challenged Castro to allow greater political liberties.

Obama went straight from the speech to a private meeting with prominent dissidents on the island, a few of whom object to his engagement policy.

"As far as I am concerned nothing has changed, the repression continues," said Berta Soler from the Ladies in White group, who met Obama at the embassy.

Cuba's government dismisses the dissidents as mercenaries without public support but Obama applauded their work and "extraordinary courage."

Obama sees his dramatic shift away from a decades-old policy of trying to isolate and weaken Cuba as a success story and wants to make it an irreversible part of his legacy by the time he leaves office in January.

Still, major obstacles remain to full normalization of ties, notably the differences over human rights, the Republican-controlled US Congress' refusal to lift the embargo and Washington's resistance to discussing the return of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama's critics at home have criticized his visit to Cuba as a premature reward to the Communist government. US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said on Tuesday the trip legitimizes what he called Castro's "tyrannical dictatorship."

TRTWorld and agencies