President Barack Obama meets with Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Embassy, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. From left are, Guillermo ‘Coco’ Farinas, Nelson Alvarez Matute, Miriam Celaya Gonzalez, Manuel Cuesta Morua. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON – Speaking in moving, personal terms, President Obama credited the Civil Rights Movement in the United States for his election as the nation’s first Black president and for breaking down other racial, ethnic and gender barriers.
“Now, there’s no secret that our governments disagree on many of these issues. 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,” Obama said to 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.
“We do have too much money in American politics. But, in America, it’s still possible for somebody like me – a child who was raised by a single mom, a child of mixed race who did not have a lot of money – to pursue and achieve the highest office in the land. That’s what’s possible in America.”
Even so, America has not been without its problems, Obama candidly acknowledged.
“We do have challenges with racial bias – in our communities, in our criminal justice system, in our society – the legacy of slavery and segregation,” he said. “But the fact that we have open debates within America’s own democracy is what allows us to get better.
“In 1959, the year that my father moved to America, it was illegal for him to marry my mother, who was White, in many American states. When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South. But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they 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. That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.”
The landmark Board v. Board of Education ruling outlawing school segregation was handed down in 1954.
It wasn’t until 1967, in Loving v. Virginia that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 law forbidding interracial marriage. A lower court judge, Leon M. Bazile, had written in his decision upholding Virginia’s law, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The couple – Mildred Loving, a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a White man – pled guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail, which was suspended on condition that they leave their native Virginia and not return together for 25 years. They were arrested after returning to the state to visit relatives.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the law violated the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “The freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”
The ruling invalidated similar laws in other states, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
Obama said that progress was not limited to African Americans.
“But just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that’s taking place right now. You had 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,” Obama said, evoking laughter. “Who would have believed that back in 1959?”
The president did not avoid the subject of colonialism.
“Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa. Like the United States, the Cuban people can trace their heritage to both slaves and slave-owners,” he recounted. “We’ve welcomed both immigrants who came a great distance to start new lives in the Americas.”
While repeatedly challenging Cuba on its human rights record, Obama praised its educational system that “values every boy and every girl” and physicians who have responded to medical crises throughout the world.
Obama said Cubans – not Americans – must determine their fate.
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he declared. “I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
Obama likened the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. to estranged brothers.
“So even as our governments became adversaries, our people continued to share these common passions, particularly as so many Cubans came to America,” Obama said. “In Miami or Havana, you can find places to dance the Cha-Cha-Cha or the Salsa, and eat ropa vieja. People in both of our countries have sung along with Celia Cruz or Gloria Estefan, and now listen to reggaeton or Pitbull. Millions of our people share a common religion – a faith that I paid tribute to at the Shrine of our Lady of Charity in Miami, a peace that Cubans find in La Cachita.
“For all of our differences, the Cuban and American people share common values in their own lives. A sense of patriotism and a sense of pride – a lot of pride. A profound love of family. A passion for our children, a commitment to their education. And that’s why I believe our grandchildren will look back on this period of isolation as an aberration, as just one chapter in a longer story of family and of friendship.”
However, there are profound differences between the two countries.
Obama explained, “But we cannot, and should not, ignore the very real differences that we have – about how we organize our governments, our economies, and our societies. Cuba has a one-party system; the United States is a multi-party democracy. Cuba has a socialist economic model; the United States is an open market. Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state; the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual.”
The president offered a simple explanation for his willingness to melt frost relations with a county just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
“But still, many people on both sides of this debate have asked: Why now? Why now?
“There is one simple answer,” he said. “What the United States was doing was not working. We have to have the courage to acknowledge that truth. A policy of isolation designed for the Cold War made little sense in the 21st century. The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them. And I’ve always believed in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called ‘the fierce urgency of now’ – we should not fear change, we should embrace it.”