US President Barack Obama has said in a speech that his Cuba visit will finally end the Cold War in the Americas. Obama is the first sitting US president to visit the island in the last 88 years.
Speaking at Havana's Grand Theater, Barack Obama said he was in the country to "extend a hand of friendship" and "bury the last remnant of Cold War in the Americas."
The United States cut off ties with Cuba in 1961, during the Cold War, and imposed a trade embargo on the island. Relations between the two countries improved following talks that began 15 months ago.
"Many people on both sides of the debate have asked, 'Why now?' There is one simple answer. What the United States was doing, was not working. We have to have the courage to acknowlege that truth. The policy designed for isolation in the Cold War made little sense in the 21st century," Obama said in a speech that was broadcast all over Cuba.
"Havana is only 90 miles (145 miles) from Florida, but to get here we had to travel a great distance," Obama said. The president received a huge round of applause when he called for the Republican-led US Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an "outdated burden on the Cuban people." Both Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, have called it the "most important obstacle to Cuba's economic growth."
Cuban President Raul Castro was in the audience for Obama's address at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso
Human rights and democracy in Cuba
Obama quoted examples from the current US presidential election race to illustrate how the political mindset had changed since the 1950s. This year's presidential hopefuls featured two children of Cuban expats, Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The Democrat candidates included Hillary Clinton, who could become the first female president of the US, and Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist.
"You have two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party running against the legacy of a black man who is president while arguing that they're the best person to beat the Democratic nominee, who will either be a woman or a democratic socialist. Who would have believed that back in 1959," Obama asked.
But the US president's optimistic speech also included criticism of Cuba's human rights record. "I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear," he said, adding, "The rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights."
The US leader's address marked the final hours of his three-day visit to the island - the first by a US president in 88 years. However, the occasion was however marred by news of terror attacks in Brussels, where over 30 people were killed.
"We stand in solidarity with them [the Belgian authorities] in condemning these outrageous attacks against innocent people," Obama said in Havana.
His schedule included a meeting with Cuban dissidents and watching a baseball game featuring Cuba's national team.
mg/msh (AP, Reuters)