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Many Ordinary Cubans Welcome Obama's Message Of Peace


In Havana today, President Obama said that it was time for Congress to lift the embargo against Cuba. But he said that alone will not solve the Island's economic woes. The Cuban government must allow greater political freedoms and open up the state-controlled economy. The president's message was broadcast live on television throughout Cuba. NPR's Carrie Kahn sat down to watch it with one Cuban family.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Reynaldo Oliva, a driver for the state police, sat on the edge of his wobbly queen-size bed to watch Obama's speech. In his second-story apartment in Old Havana he shares with his wife, two kids and mother-in-law, neighbors streamed in and out through the roughly 40-minute speech. Some made comments. Most just watched intently. A small statue of the revered Cuban poet Jose Marti sat atop the old, fuzzy colored TV set.

Oliva marveled at Obama's use of quotes from Marti and the Spanish he peppered throughout his speech. When the President spoke of the five-decade-long U.S. embargo against Cuba, Oliva's eyes widened. It's time to change the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba as if it were still the Cold War. It wasn't working, Obama said.


BARACK OBAMA: That leads me to a bigger and more important reason for these changes. Creo en el pueblo Cubano. I believe in the Cuban people.



KAHN: "Thank you," shouted Oliva. Three more neighbors showed up and either stood or sat in the few available weathered chairs in the sparsely furnished apartment. As Obama began talking directly about his desire for Cubans to be allowed more freedoms, including the right to criticize the government and choose their leaders, the neighbors took to sharing glances, nodding silently and chain smoking.

Obama acknowledged the sensitivity of such issues, especially coming from an American, but continued telling how he personally benefited from people protesting during the civil rights movement in America.


OBAMA: People organized. They protested. They debated these issues. The challenged government officials. And because of those protests and because of those debates and because of popular mobilization, I'm able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States.

OLIVA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "He's the only U.S. President who has ever spoken the truth, said Oliva." Some in the room were stunned by Obama's words given to the Cuban leader Raul Castro and a crowd of party loyalists. Oliva's 77-year-old mother in law, Aide Camba, said she loved Obama's speech.

AIDE CAMBA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Everything he said was great, especially the part about speaking freely," she said.

CAMBA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I remember what it was like to live in that system of freedom," said Camba. "I've had to spend the last decades adapting to this one." One neighbor who was in the military and didn't want to give her name out of fear she could suffer repercussions said her favorite part was when Obama called for an end to the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But she agreed with Obama, that will only going one part of fixing the Cuban economy. "The rest," she says, "will be up to us. We need change."

When talking about change, most Cubans refer to economic, not so much political, change. Most take pride in their free public education and health care system and emphasize that any change in Cuba not endanger those state-provided services. Reynaldo Oliva, the head of the house, said he's glad Obama came to Cuba and spoke so openly.

OLIVA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "He's the only president that has ever had the courage to come here and make peace with us." Then, with a look of concern on his face, Oliva said, "I hope he doesn't have too many troubles with the conservatives when he goes back home to the U.S." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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