Reactions to President Obama’s Speech in Cuba

A prior post provided the text of President Obama’s March 22nd speech to the Cuban people. Now we examine the reactions to the speech in Cuba and the U.S. while simultaneously acknowledging the superior reporting about the speech and the reaction provided in the March 25 post of the Cuba Central blog of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.[1]

Reactions in Cuba

The international press reported positive reactions to the speech from ordinary Cubans. Alejandro Trelles Shaw, a retired Cuban counterintelligence officer who watched the speech on TV at home, said, “I liked it. I liked all of it. There was nothing I didn’t like. There’s communication between him and Raúl, and that’s fundamental.” Juan Francisco Ugarte Oliva, a 71-year-old retired refrigeration technician, said the American president “dared to say in the presence of the leaders, of Raul Castro, that (Cubans) had the right to protest peacefully without being beaten or arrested. Omardy Isaac, a 43-year-old who works in a gift shop, said, “Cubans need all of their rights and I am in favor of democracy.”

Obama’s comments about racism in Cuba drew a mixed response in Cuba. Yes, Cuba has ended institutionalized segregation at schools, neighborhood and beach clubs and Cuba is deeply shaped by interracial interactions and marriages. But the civil and public leadership is about 70 percent while two-thirds of the population is black and mixed race. Many blacks on the island experience racial discrimination and were inspired to see and hear an African-American U.S. President. Manuel Valier Figueroa, 50, a black Cuban actor, said, “The first black president [of the U.S.] showed that a black person can lead. Here, blacks need to see that the same thing can happen.”

After the speech selected Cuban dissidents had a two-hour meeting at the U.S. Embassy with President Obama. This group included independent journalists, a women’s group leader, a lawyer and a gay rights advocate. Here are some of the reactions of these Cubans:

  • José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of Cuba’s largest dissident group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, said, “It was the speech we and millions of Cubans yearned to hear. It was a light in the dark.”
  • Elizardo Sánchez, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said Mr. Obama had listened to criticism from some of the attendees, but there “was an atmosphere of closeness and trust.”
  • Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights, said, “In spite of the criticism — and I’ve been one of his critics — it was a very good meeting. Very honest. We realize that we have differences on tactics but not strategy. He said he admires us, that that’s why he supports us and will continue to do so” even after his presidency.
  • Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist and a founder of the Ladies in White, was thankful for the meeting itself and mentioned Obama’s “recognition to the opposition publicly” at a March 21 press conference with President Castro and again in his speech. She added the live transmission of those statements by television and radio meant the “people of Cuba could hear it. They heard his concepts and heard him explain concepts of human rights and the possibility that Cubans could exercise their rights as well.”

Below is a photograph of this meeting by Stephen Crowley of the New York Times:


The previous day Presidents Obama and Castro held a nationally televised press conference after their private meeting. The two made general comments about their private discussions and then responded to journalists’ questions. Many Cubans were shocked to see President Castro facing tough questions from American journalists who challenged him to defend Cuba’s record on human rights and political prisoners and to hear him admit that perhaps Cuba is not always perfect on human rights. Marlene Pino, a 47-year-old engineer, said, “This is pure history and I never thought I’d see something like this. It’s difficult to quickly assimilate what’s happening here. For me it’s extraordinary to see this.” Raul Rios, a 47-year-old driver commented, “It’s very significant to hear this from our president, for him to recognize that not all human rights are respected in Cuba. We are living in historic times, the United States and Cuba. Nobody could have imagined this in the past. I think this marks a before and after.”

Interestingly the Cuban newspaper, Granma, published the full text (in Spanish and online in English) of the President’s speech and his remarks and of President Castro at the press conference. It also had a commentary on the speech that quoted various observers.

However, immediately after Obama left the island, according to the Miami Herald, “the Cuban regime unleashed its official press . . . [to reiterate] a litany of old charges against the United States — and particularly, Cuban exiles. The propaganda machine lauded the Castros’ leadership and pounced on Obama with a litany of complaints about what he forgot to say or do, including asking for ‘forgiveness for the crimes committed against our people.’”

Reactions in the U.S.

 A second-generation Cuban-American, Eric Zurita, discussed the pain experienced by his father and his family in leaving Cuba and coming to the U.S., but concluded that “instead of nursing the pain our decaying island has caused us, we should prioritize the suffering of the people who never left and who continue to endure lies and oppression.” This observation was supported by his father, who said Cuban exiles whose families had been hurt that badly are the last ones who should not be influencing U.S. policy toward Cuba, because they are blinded by their pain.

In Miami, Florida, the most Cuban city in the U.S., “most Cuban-Americans welcomed Mr. Obama’s journey to the island as the latest breakthrough in the stalemate between the two countries. Carlos Sanchez, a 50-year old who arrived here when he was 15,” distilled the significance of the President’s visit to Cuba into one word: “hope. Any change is good, because it couldn’t get worse than what it was before. Trying is better than nothing. But it takes time for people to change. They don’t want to change. They have to be forced to change.” Barbara Gonzalez, a 54 year-old nurse’s assistant, said “the excitement in Cuba over Mr. Obama’s visit is palpable. The father of my children, who still lives there, even went to the airport to welcome Obama.”

Many of Miami’s Cuban-American business elite accompanied Obama on the trip to Cuba. They support the normalization and are looking for business opportunities on the island.

On the President’s plane to Cuba were 40 senators and representatives, mainly Democrats but some Republicans. As a Minnesotan, I paid special attention to the reactions of Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.), both authors of bills to end the embargo. Other Senators on the trip included Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) and Dean Heller (Rep., NV); other Representatives included Nancy Pelosi (Dem., CA), Jim McGovern (Dem., MA), Mark Sanford (Rep., SC) and Reid Ribble (Rep., WI).

Klobuchar said in a Minnesota newspaper article that she hoped the trip would begin to thaw relations between the two countries. “You see more and more outpouring of Cuban heart, people lining up in the streets with umbrellas, really excited about the president being here. But the measure will be the economic change and if there is progress. The things I’ve heard is there are more and more restaurants filled up, more tourists are coming. … They’re going to have to expand.” She also issued a press release with positive comments about the March 21 joint Obama-Castro news conference.

Emmer said the speech is “going to be more of a help than anything [for ending the embargo and fostering normalization]. He called for the Cuban people to once again control their own destiny. That is a shared value. I don’t care what your party affiliation is. That is a shared American value that I think we can all agree on.” This was his third trip to the island in the last 15 months, and he expressed his surprise at the friendly greetings of the U.S. representatives by Cubans on the street. “Someone’s actually waving and giving the thumbs-up to members of Congress. That actually sends a stronger message that the Cuban people are counting on us. People often ask me, what are we getting for this? We are increasing our stature in the Western Hemisphere.”

Not unexpectedly Republicans who were not on the trip reacted negatively. This included U.S. Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Ted Cruz (Rep., TX) and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL), all Cuban-Americans. Another was Representative and Speaker Paul Ryan (Rep., WI). who condemned the trip, saying it legitimizes the “tyrannical dictatorship” of Cuban President Raúl Castro.

An editorial in the New York Times stated that Obama made a “compelling case” with grace and humility that “the ties that bind Cuba and the United States are more powerful than their differences.” It emphasized the President’s saying, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” and he made it clear that the U.S. has neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba.

The Washington Post’s editorial was more skeptical. It concluded, “The real test of Mr. Obama’s thaw is not to be found in the pomp and circumstance of his visit, but in whether it leads to a Cuba that is freer and more open after Air Force One has departed.”

Hector Perla, Jr., an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, concluded that Obama has adopted a policy that creates economic openings for U.S. businesses and better political relations with the island and that tries to undermine the Cuban government. The Obama administration is now openly shifting to a “democracy promotion” approach to regime change, which is geared toward opening up the Cuban economy, splitting Cuban society by co-opting and luring certain sectors closer to U.S. interests, and undermining the regime’s internal support, all while pushing for “political reforms” (such as implementation of liberal capitalist representative democracy).

Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University, thought Obama’s speech was similar in many ways to that of President Reagan in Moscow in 1988 although he thought the earlier speech was more effective because it used humor.


The President’s speech implicitly and properly recognized that based upon U.S.-Cuba history since the late 19th century the Cuban government and people have a well-founded fear of the threat of an U.S. effort to overthrow the communist regime in Cuba and that this fear underlies the Cuban restrictions on free speech, assembly and protest and democracy. Therefore, Obama said in his speech that Cubans “do not need to fear a threat from the United States” and that  “I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba.  What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people.  We will not impose our political or economic system on you.”

Although these words, I am sure, were well received by the Cubans, I doubt that they were totally persuaded.

After all, the U.S. still has “discreet” or covert democracy promotion programs in Cuba that have been discussed in prior posts [2] and that Obama did not publicly discuss on his trip. Indeed, just two days after Obama left Cuba, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs announced it was soliciting proposals to conduct a nearly $754,000 program titled “Community Internship Program for Cuban Youth.” Starting in August 2016, this program would provide “two- to four-month professional development programs” in the U.S. with a nonprofit organization for “young emerging leaders from Cuban civil society” for them to “develop a set of leadership tools and skills to manage and grow civil society organizations that will actively support democratic principles in Cuba” and to “fuel the participants’ development of action plans for nongovernmental community activities in Cuba.” The stated purpose of this program may sound eminently reasonable to U.S. citizens, and so long as it is done with the knowledge, approval and cooperation of the Cuban government, it would be laudable. But if it is not to be done with such Cuban participation, which seems likely, the program would be ill advised and counter-productive.[3]

Moreover, if this proposed program had not been privately disclosed to the Cuban government before its public release on November 24, Obama’s credibility and good will apparently created by his recent trip would be adversely affected. In addition, the Cubans know that Obama only has 10 months left of his presidency, that major contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have repeatedly voiced opposition to normalization, and that the leader for that nomination, Donald Trump, is especially difficult to understand what he would be like as president.

Therefore, in my opinion, it will take time and additional demonstrations of good will by the next U.S. administration in order for Cuba to have confidence that it need not fear the U.S. and to move toward liberalizing restrictions on free speech, assembly and protest and increasing Cuban participation in selecting their government leaders.

Nevertheless, it was important for President Obama to publicly provide these assurances to the Cuban government and people. His speech also eloquently and honestly recognized that the U.S. in retrospect had done things that had contributed to the long period of hostility between the two countries.

Obama emotionally talked about the adverse impact on Cuban families on both sides of the Caribbean Sea from this hostility and the need for personal forgiveness and reconciliation. This too was necessary and hopefully helped Cubans in both countries to see a way forward for themselves and their families.

In short, this trip and this speech by President Obama should be seen as important additional steps towards normalization and reconciliation of the two countries.


[1] Assoc. Press, Obama Speaks on Cuba-American Relations, N.Y. Times (Mar. 21, 2016)(video of Obama’s comments after 3/21/16 conference with President Castro); Assoc. Press, Cuban President on Relations with U.S., N.Y. Times (Mar. 21, 2016); Assoc. Press, Must-See TV: Cubans Marvel at Rare Questioning of Castro, N.Y. Times (Mar. 21, 2016); Alverez, Reaction to Obama Trip Reflects Change in Cuban-Americans, N.Y. Times (Mar. 21, 2016); Robles, Obama Spends Almost 2 Hours with Cuban Dissidents, N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Robles, Cuban Dissidents Praise ‘Closeness and Trust After Meeting with Obama, N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Editorial, Mr. Obama’s Honest Message in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Reuters, House Speaker Ryan Attacks Obama’s Trip to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Cave, Cuba Says It Has Solved Racism. Obama Isn’t So Sure, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2016); Eliperin & DeYoung,Obama addresses the Cuban nation: ‘It is time now for us to leave the past behind,’ Wash. Post (Mar. 22, 2016); Assoc. Press, Cubans speak out on President Barack Obama’s speech, Wash. Post (Mar. 22, 2016); Editorial, The real test of Obama’s thaw with Cuba, Wash. Post (Mar. 22, 2016); Perla, Obama’s visit to Cuba is actually a triumph of Castro’s revolutionary defense policies, Wash. Post (Mar. 24, 2016); Zurita, Yes, my family had to flee Cuba. But staying mad about it doesn’t achieve anything, Wash. Post (Mar. 25, 2016); Cordoba, Obama’s Speech Stirs the Spirit in Cuba, W.S.J. (Mar. 22, 2016); Lee & Cordoba, Obama, Addressing Cuba, Says It’s Time to ‘Bury’ the Cold War, W.S.J. (Mar. 22, 2016); Sestanovich, Comparing Obama’s Speech in Havana with Reagan’s in Moscow, W.S.J. (Mar. 23, 2016); Mazzel, What a Havana family saw as it watched President Obama, Miami Herald (Mar. 22, 2016); Mazzel & Torres, Cuban dissidents meet Obama to air grievances about Castro—and about new U.S. policy, Miami Herald (Mar. 22, 2016); Ordońez, In interviews, Cubans see hope, not betrayal, in US relations, Miami Herald (Mar. 23, 2016); Santiago, Post-Obama Cuba asks: And now what? No satisfaction in government response, Miami Herald (Mar. 25, 2016); Mazzel, Miami’s Cuban-American business elite spent spring break in Havana, Miami Herald (Mar. 25, 2016); Sherry, In Cuba, Emmer, Klobuchar say Obama’s historic trip will help their efforts to lift the embargo, StarTribune (Mar. 23, 2016); Klobuchar Press Release, President Obama and Castro Call for End of Cuba Embargo (Mar. 22, 2016); Leahy Press Release, Comments Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The President’s Address To The Cuban People (Mar. 22, 2016); Statement to the press by President Obama, Granma (Mar. 21, 2016); Blockade is the most serious obstacle to our economic development and the welfare of the Cuban people, Granma (Mar. 21, 2016)(President Castro’s comments at press conference); Remarks by President Obama to the People of Cuba, Granma (Mar. 22, 2016);Gomez, Cuba’s future in Cuba’s hands, Granma (Mar. 23, 2016); Obama-Castro press conference on 3/21, Granma (Mar. 24, 2016).

[2] Here are the prior posts about U.S. programs to promote regime change in Cuba: U.S.’ Secret Cuban Social Media Program Raises Questions about the Validity of Criticisms of Cuba by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (April 4, 2014); U.S. Senate Hearing Discusses USAID’s Social Media Program for Cuba (April 9, 2014); What Is Wrong with the White House’s Plan for Democracy in Cuba? (April 9, 2014); Yet Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba (Aug. 12, 2014); Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba: U.S. Government’s Reactions (Aug. 13, 2014); Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba: Other Reactions (Aug. 14, 2014); New York Times Criticizes USAID’s Efforts to Promote Regime Change in Cuba (Nov. 10, 2014); Email to President Obama Objecting to Covert or “Discreet” U.S. Government Programs Purportedly Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba (Jan. 7, 2015); Reforming U.S. Democracy Promotion Programs in Cuba (Nov. 6, 2015).

[3] Department of State, Community Internship Program for Cuban Youth (WHAP-WHAAQPPC-16-001), (Mar. 24, 2016); New State Department program targets Cuban youth, Along the Malecon (Mar. 25, 2016).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

3 thoughts on “Reactions to President Obama’s Speech in Cuba”

  1. The photo of the “dissidents” at the same table with Obama moved me. They must have felt a validation from his presence, and encouraged to carry on. Of course, it IS unusual for a president to sit around a table with … people. Quite remarkable.

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