The visual in the still shot of the video above is a powerful statement on its own: The President of the United States standing in front of both the Cuban and U.S. flag speaking to the people of Cuba. Who thought something like that could happen in our lifetimes?
But the words President Obama spoke were not merely symbolic – they dealt with the hard truths of reality both past and present.
There’s no limitation from the United States on the ability of Cuba to take these steps. It’s up to you. And I can tell you as a friend that sustainable prosperity in the 21st century depends upon education, health care, and environmental protection. But it also depends on the free and open exchange of ideas. If you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential. And over time, the youth will lose hope.
I know these issues are sensitive, especially coming from an American President. Before 1959, some Americans saw Cuba as something to exploit, ignored poverty, enabled corruption. And since 1959, we’ve been shadow-boxers in this battle of geopolitics and personalities. I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.
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. We recognize that every country, every people, must chart its own course and shape its own model…
So let me tell you what I believe. I can’t force you to agree, but you should know what I think. I believe that every person should be equal under the law. Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads. I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear – to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.
Remember…he spoke those words with President Raul Castro in attendance. But he also acknowledged critiques Cubans have made of this country.
I’ve had frank conversations with President Castro. For many years, he has pointed out the flaws in the American system – economic inequality; the death penalty; racial discrimination; wars abroad. That’s just a sample. He has a much longer list. (Laughter.) But here’s what the Cuban people need to understand: I welcome this open debate and dialogue. It’s good. It’s healthy. I’m not afraid of it.
He went on to use his own personal story as an example of how change happens in our democracy – and then summarized with this message that should resonate here as strongly as it does in Cuba.
So here’s my message to the Cuban government and the Cuban people: The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution – America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world – those ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy. Not because American democracy is perfect, but precisely because we’re not. And we – like every country – need the space that democracy gives us to change. It gives individuals the capacity to be catalysts to think in new ways, and to reimagine how our society should be, and to make them better.
I am reminded of the quote from Hillary Clinton’s college thesis on Saul Alinsky that I wrote about recently:
As such, he [Alinsky] has been feared — just as Eugene Debs or Walt Whitman or Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths — democracy.
That is the challenge President Obama just issued to the Cuban people – and all of us here at home as well.