March 22, 2016 / 11:29 PM / 3 years ago

Obama wins over Cubans with straight talk and humility

HAVANA (Reuters) - Lucila Morales stared in amazement at the flickering image of U.S. President Barack Obama on her old TV set on Tuesday, as he extolled democracy and political freedoms in a live speech capping his historic visit to the Communist-led island.

President Obama and his family react along with Cuban President Raul Castro to an exhibition game between the Cuban National team and the MLB Tampa Bay Rays at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Delivered from Havana’s Grand Theater, the home of Cuban ballet, Obama’s speech drew people to their televisions and radios across the city, impressing an audience not used to open political debate and surprised by his touches of humility.

“Now he’s thrown a grenade,” Morales gasped when Obama spoke of the importance of the free and open exchange of ideas, long a taboo subject in a country where dissent is stifled, access to the Internet remains limited and the media is state-controlled.

In his most pointed comments from the restored theater, where President Raul Castro was seated on a balcony with his top aides, Obama said Cubans should be able to choose their governments in free, democratic elections.

“I’m with you Obama, in choosing our next president,” shouted computer student Roberto Iglesias, 28, popping his head round the door of Morales’ airy 1940s-era apartment near Havana University.

Obama’s two-day trip to Cuba was the first by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge sailed to Havana on a warship in 1928. Following a 2014 detente announced by Obama and Castro, the trip was a major step toward ending half a century of cold War animosity.

Obama politely praised his hosts and accepted that before the revolution some Americans exploited Cuba. He acknowledged U.S. problems with racism but was frank about his belief in democracy’s superiority over Cuba’s one-party system.

His acceptance of errors at home and in Cuba contrasted with past presidents who harangued their neighbor for decades after Fidel Castro overthrew a pro-American government in 1959.

Obama vowed not to impose a different political or economic system on Cuba and instead urged Cubans to build on their own achievements, a resonant message for many young people proud of Cuba’s health, education and low crime, but hungry for change.

“He is calling on the young, on the Cuban people to build, not to destroy,” said Amed Chincle, 31, watching the speech with his Afro-Cuban neighbors and family in a windowless apartment lit by a single strip bulb.

Wearing a T-shirt with the logo of Hard Rock Cafe Boston, Chincle said he hoped Cuban authorities would heed Obama’s advice by not assuming that every young person complaining about small injustices was trying to bring down the government.

“Lots of young people love their country and have no need to leave in search of a better system, but we should be able to speak and express ourselves without the government being uncomfortable,” said Chincle, a self-employed cycle taxi rider angry at what he saw as abuse of power by the police.

“They think that every protest by young people is a threat to the government - and that’s not true,” he said.

More than anything though, it was the personal flourishes during Obama’s three-day visit that won sympathy from Cubans.

Obama spent hours on Monday listening to small business owners in a meeting at a state-run brewery, and his speech on Tuesday was littered with references to Cuban entrepreneurs such as a barber whose business was growing fast. Cutting hair was mostly a state activity until Raul Castro took power in 2008 and began cautious market-style reforms.

A graphic designer who identified himself only by his first name Elicer said that changes allowing more free enterprise had been positive but the leadership was out of touch with the day to day lives of the people.

“With this meeting with entrepreneurs alone, Obama did what no president of this country has done in so many years - sit with ordinary people and ask what problems they have,” he said.

Editing by Kieran Murray, Peter Cooney and Tom Brown

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