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Obama's Landmark Speech In Havana: Special Coverage


This is Special Coverage from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. We are waiting a landmark moment. President Obama will deliver a speech in Havana, Cuba, at a century-old theater. We will be able to listen to it here, and the Cuban people, we are told, will be able to listen or watch there. This is just one of two major stories we're following this morning. The other is today's attack in Brussels, Belgium. A major airport and a metro station were struck - explosions in both those locations. More than two dozen people were killed. We do expect President Obama to address that attack when he starts to talk in a few minutes. And for now, we're going to bring everybody up to date on that story. NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been following this and other attacks. She's in New York. Good morning, Dina.


INSKEEP: So what is the latest you've learned here about what has happened and in what order? This began at the airport, correct?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It began at the airport around 8 o'clock this morning. There was either one or two giant explosions in the departure hall, which is before you get through security in the airport. Then about a half hour later, there was a blast on the metro in central Belgium near the EU headquarters around 9, 9:30. And my sources tell me that that blast actually took place inside a car near the Maelbeek - or Maelbeek station in Brussels.

INSKEEP: Inside a train car - so an especially deadly location. And when you say that particular station, we learned that it's of quite some significance because of its location.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's very close - it's not necessarily the station that you get off on to go to the EU but it's, you know, very close, within, like, 400 yards of the entrance to the EU.

INSKEEP: You must have been in contact with U.S. counterterrorism officials today. How closely are they watching events in Europe?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They're watching this very closely, and they've been watching basically what's been going on for the past week. Last Tuesday, there was a big raid on a safe house in - just outside of the center of Brussels, and they found someone who they had identified as a former ISIS fighter who was there with a Kalashnikov who shot at police. They were surprised by that. And then they found this fingerprint that was a very important fingerprint of Salah Abdeslam. It was on a water glass, so they knew it was fresh. And this is the man who's known basically as the only survivor of the Paris attacks. And then on Friday, they actually found him and arrested him.

INSKEEP: So on Tuesday, they find the fingerprint. By Friday, they track him down and arrest him. And ever since that arrest, authorities have been awaiting an attack in Brussels.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, among other things that they've found as they were scouring to try and find Abdeslam were caches of weapons around Brussels, including some detonators but not some suicide vests. So they naturally thought that there was something that was going to happen or at least there was some sort of network that they weren't aware of that they were trying to chase.

INSKEEP: So if you put yourself in the shoes of an investigator, which your job requires you to try to do with your imagination, what questions would you be asking next?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Where's the bomb maker? That's the really key thing here. These vests have been made with something called TATP, which you can make with sort of bleach and peroxide. But it's incredibly volatile, so not just anyone can make it. You need an expert. They're looking for the bomb maker.

INSKEEP: OK, Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. She will stay with us throughout this morning as we continue to cover the events in Brussels, Belgium. We do expect President Obama to, in some way, speak to those events when he delivers his speech in Havana today. And let's listen it one of the sounds that has been heard in Cuba in this past day.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Presenting (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Playing "The Star-Spangled Banner").

INSKEEP: "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Havana, Cuba, a military band playing as President Obama arrived yesterday at the Palace of the Cuban Revolution and spoke with Cuba's Communist leader Raul Castro. Now President Obama is preparing to give a speech, which will be heard by the Cuban people, we are told. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley has been traveling with the president. He's in Havana. Hi Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Would you set the scene for us? Where is this speech taking place?

HORSLEY: The president will be speaking at the Gran Teatro, which is a beautiful old theater overlooking the Central Park here in Havana. It was built at the turn of the last century, and it looks like a European-style opera house with balconies climbing steeply up the sides. There are about 1,100 seats in the theater. But of course, the president's audience will be much larger than that because this speech will be televised. So folks all over the island can see what the president has to say, can hear his words. And he'll also of course be addressing the Cuban-American community in the United States, who have a deep investment in this and who are more deeply divided about this outreach to Cuba than the U.S. population at large.

INSKEEP: So as with many speeches, the most vital audiences are surely the people watching on television. But what about those 1,100 seats in the theater? Who's there so far as you know?

HORSLEY: These are invited guests. And they'll be - they'll be listening - there's going to be no introduction for the president. So this is a - sort of a sterile event. The - he'll be introduced by what they call the voice of God or recorded announcement. They didn't want to, you know, share the stage with, say, a Cuban official or anyone like that. And this is an opportunity for the president to really spell out his vision for what - a new day as he described it between the U.S. and Cuba will be after half a century of official isolation. You know, he remarked himself yesterday on what a thing it is to hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" played by a Cuban military band. What a thing it is to see the president of the United States in Havana, a sight that would have been unimaginable, he said, for decades. But here he is, and he's going to talk about what he sees going forward.

INSKEEP: I can imagine why, but why would the president not want to share the stage with a Cuban official before his speech?

HORSLEY: This is an opportunity for him to address the Cuban people directly, unmediated by officials, by dissidents. And he's meeting with both officials and dissidents while he's here. But this is a chance for him to really speak one-on-one to the Cuban public. It was an amazing thing yesterday when he did share the stage with Cuban President Raul Castro, a dramatic moment. We were all sort of wondering would the Cuban president take questions from the American press corps, as President Obama did? And Raul Castro did take questions. I won't say he necessarily answered the questions, but he did at least have to sort of stand there and face scrutiny from American reporters about Cuba's human rights record, about political prisoners in this country. And he raised some questions of his own about conditions in the United States, about health care and education in the U.S. The president said, and his aides have said, look, the United States is not afraid to face our questioners. And the Cuban government shouldn't duck those kind of tough queries either.

INSKEEP: So much to dig into there, and we're going to dig into a little bit of it as we wait for the president to speak. NPR's Tom Gjelten is in our studios here in Washington, one of many correspondents standing by and whom we expect to hear from in this hour. Tom wrote a book about Cuba, has thought about Cuba, travelled to Cuba for quite some time. Tom, how big a deal is it that the president of the United States is standing there - about to stand there in that theater?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It's a huge deal, Steve. You've heard many times the last U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge back in 1928. So 80-some years have passed since then. There is one interesting point to make. While Barack Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba, Jimmy Carter visited Cuba in 2002. And there are a lot of parallels with that visit. He, too, drove a very hard bargain with the Cuban authorities over what conditions would be imposed on his visit. He insisted on speaking live to the Cuban people, just as President Obama is doing. The Cuban authorities originally said you can do that on television. He said I want it to go out on radio as well because a lot more Cubans were listening to the radio in those days than watching television. And during that speech, which was in the end broadcast on both television and radio to the Cuban people, Jimmy Carter mentioned Oswaldo Paya, who was a dissident leading a referendum drive at the time, to get a referendum for the Cuban people to vote on whether they should have political reform in Cuba or not. And Jimmy Carter, quite boldly, mentioned that referendum drive. It had a huge impact in Cuba. People didn't even know about this referendum drive, so that's an interesting parallel. He used that occasion to really promote change in Cuba.

INSKEEP: Probably the most publicity that guy ever received. Now, our diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen covers the State Department, of course, has been following all the diplomatic maneuvering that lead up to this. How hard was it to arrange the details?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, it's interesting, you know, John Kerry actually wanted to go a few weeks ago to raise the issue of human rights and in the end didn't go. And in part it was because the embassy was just stretched thin. This is a new embassy. It was called an intersection before. And when they decided to reestablish diplomatic relations, they turned it into a full embassy. But they don't really have the staff that they need. They can't really get out as freely as they can in other countries. The Cubans put very tough restrictions on people. They have to let them know 72 hours ahead of time before they take any trips. So it was difficult to arrange Obama's trip, but, you know, they couldn't even get John Kerry's trip off the ground.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Sorry Secretary Kerry, you're only the secretary of state. We really don't have time for you. So we are looking now at televised images of the Gran Teatro in Havana. A couple of flags side-by-side - the Cuban flag, the U.S. flag. There's a lectern there at which President Obama will stand after being introduced by that voice of God, as we heard Scott Horsley describe it. As we await that speech coming in a few minutes, I want to go back to the streets of Havana. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Cuba, has covered this country off and on for years. Carrie, where are you?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: I am in the home of just a residence here in Old Havana - beautiful Old Havana - and I convinced them to let me into their home and all their neighbors have come in to watch the speech. It's very...

INSKEEP: Oh, I hope they're serving food or something like that for you as well? Coffee? Anything?

KAHN: No. They offered me coffee, but it would be my custom to bring them some food and I didn't. So I'll have to do that after we're done.

INSKEEP: OK, so who are you going to be watching the speech with then? Who are these people?

KAHN: They were just residents that were kind enough to let me into their home. I'm here with Rinald Oliva (ph). He has, kind of, a dual employment. He works for the state, but he also is taking advantage of the small opening in the private sector here. And he's a driver, and that is on his own dime. He makes his own money. He's the - they called him (speaking Spanish) they're self-employed.

INSKEEP: Which is...

KAHN: And he's here with his wife and his mother-in-law and neighbors.

INSKEEP: Which, of course, is really common in Cuba. You have the informal as well as the formal economy and people might make more money in the informal economy. Carrie...

KAHN: No, it is a formal - it's formal.


KAHN: It is licensed by the state. That is what is so amazing about it. In Communist Cuba, about 25 percent of the workforce now is self-employed, allowed by the state to get licenses for certain categories of employment. And this money that they get to keep, they make far more in the self-employed sector - the private sector - than they could as a state salary.

INSKEEP: Thanks for correcting me. Now, in the last couple of days, as President Obama and his family have moved around Havana, how much excitement have you noticed, if any, among the Cuban populace?

KAHN: When you talk to Cubans, they're very excited. And expectations are incredibly high that this visit will bring about change. And when we talk about change - for most people in Cuba, that change is economic change. We're not talking about political change. It's the political economic system changes, of course. But everybody is mostly concerned with the economics here. It's a very poor country where the average Cuban salary is about 15 to $20 a month, which is very difficult for people to eke out a living. So that's the kind of change the majority - the wide majority are hoping that President Obama can help in some way. So as I said, expectations are very high.

INSKEEP: I think that's a good occasion to bring in NPR's Jim Zarroli, who covers business. He's with us in our New York bureau. Jim, what are the business possibilities here?

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Well, I think that there's - certainly a lot of businesses are going to Cuba. A lot of trade delegations have been there, really in the hundreds at this point. A lot of businesses see a great deal of possibility there. They're looking into it. There have been some initial deals. Some companies are already there, like Sprint. There's a tractor company from Alabama called Cleber that is already arranging to, you know, start a factory there. Marriott, General Electric, Carnival Cruise - lots of people see this is a huge business opportunity, and they're eager to go in there.

INSKEEP: You know, let me ask about that because, of course, we've covered the economic opening - or the attempted economic opening of Iran. And there's still so much uncertainty there that there's been a limitation of business interests from the outside. People would like to sell stuff in Iran, but there's still a considerable reluctance to invest money in Iran because investors don't really know if they're going to be able to get the money out again. What's the situation with Cuba? Are people willing to dive in as you describe and build factories and put money in in a serious way?

ZARROLI: Well, you know, the president, Raul Castro, has really taken some steps to open up the economy, as Carrie pointed out. You know, half a million Cubans are now small-business owners or work for small-business owners. But this is still really a controlled - almost a Soviet-style economy. Foreigners are still barred from owning property in Cuba. And if you do business in Cuba, you're really still going to do - often do business with state-owned enterprises. Government wants a majority stake in business that get started there. Most of Cuba's trade apparatus is still controlled by the state. So that's a different situation than American businesses are - a lot of them are used to. And Cuba has made clear it's not going to change the way it does business just to please the United States.

INSKEEP: Tom Gjelten.

GJELTEN: As Jim said, there have been hundreds of trade delegations going to Cuba and a lot of interest in the part of U.S. businesses to do business in Cuba. But it's really been disproportionate. I mean, very few deals have been negotiated. Jim mentioned a couple, but there's tremendous ambivalence on the part of Cuban authorities to ink these deals, and really some uncertainty about whether they really want to go down this road all that fast all that far.

INSKEEP: Scott Horsley in Havana, we're watching televised images. Is that President Raul Castro who's just walked wanted into the theater there?

HORSLEY: That's right. Raul Castro was just introduced to the crowd. He's sitting in one of those balconies in the theater here, so he'll get to hear firsthand what the president says to the Cuban people. Of course, they had a chance to talk one-on-one yesterday. You know, you're talking about these formal investments by U.S. businesses, Steve. One aspect of the opening that maybe hasn't been heralded quite as much in the United States is the lifting of limits on money transfers to Cuba.

Even before the formal opening that was announced in December of 2014, President Obama had lifted the cap on how much money Cuban-Americans and others can send to relatives in Cuba. And now that cap has been removed altogether. Money flowing from the United States is what has bankrolled so many of those Cuban entrepreneurs, those restaurant owners and drivers and other small business people.

And when I talked to the politicians who were accompanying the president here on this trip, they say the growth of that private sector, bankrolled in large part by Cuban-American money transfers, is a huge wedge, a huge lever to opening up not only the economy of Cuba but the political system here because those cuentapropistas, you know, once they're not as dependent on the state for their income, they're a lot freer to challenge the state politically.

INSKEEP: It looked to me like somebody was adjusting perhaps the presidential seal there just moments before President Obama arrives. If we have a few seconds, let's bring in one more voice. Very briefly, professor Christopher Sabatini. He's a Latin America specialist at Columbia University. Good morning to you. What are you expecting to hear? What do you want to hear in this speech?

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: Well, those are two separate things, I guess.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SABATINI: I would like to hear a little bit more of a focus on human rights than he gave yesterday in his press conference with Raul Castro, in which he sort of looked like he was walking on eggshells a little, kind of apologetic and sort of accepting some of Raul Castro's pushback. I think - what I am expecting to hear, though, is I think you're going to see and hear a real call from Obama about sort of the similarities that the Cuban and the people - and the American people share - about their shared history, their shared culture, their familial ties - and try to inspire some hope in an island that has existed for over 50 years under a repressive, closed economic system and political system that is increasingly frustrated, in which really the steam, economically, is running out of the Cuban system. I think what he's going to try to do is to speak directly to the Cuban people and appeal to them, you know, without all the - without all the sort of politics and geopolitics that surrounded our relationship.

INSKEEP: Is this an occasion where he can tweak - if that's the word - tweak his hosts on human rights and political freedoms the way that Jimmy Carter did years ago?

SABATINI: Well, Tom mentioned very well - I mean, I think what Jimmy Carter did was very artful. Basically, what he did was he mentioned a particular dissident who was engaging in a very active and important project.

INSKEEP: And let me just interrupt you there because President Obama's now stepping to the lectern at the Gran Teatro.


INSKEEP: Yes we can, the president of the United States says. Thank you very much.


INSKEEP: President Obama speaking at the Gran Teatro in Havana as Raul Castro and 1,100 invited guests look on. You're listening to Special Coverage of the president's visit to Cuba from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish).

INSKEEP: And as the music goes on in Havana, let's continue the discussion here. We're going to hear from a number of our correspondents and analysts. Let's begin with professor Christopher Sabatini, Latin American specialist at Columbia University. Professor, we heard you before the speech say that up to now, the president seemed like he is walking on eggshells when it comes to human rights in Cuba. How did he sound today?

SABATINI: I think he sounded very strong. You know, he clearly is being the diplomat, and he's clearly speaking to a number of audiences. One of them is to the Cuban people, and he's trying to share both his own sort of experiences and also sort of appeal to them on the benefits of human rights. We talked about the power - he talked about the power of human rights and freedom for economic growth. I think what was also interesting, though, is he talked to Cuban-Americans about the need for reconciliation.

I think it's very important because I think many people have feared - and Tom has written about this as well in his book - excellent book, by the way. The - his written - you know, this division is very, very powerful, and a lot of people within Cuba even fear the return of the exiles will exact some sort of form of retribution against them after 50 years. And so I think it's a very powerful speech. You know, he spoke very elliptically about human rights, but I understand that. And it was powerful in the way he did it, but it was very elliptical.

INSKEEP: And then Tom Gjelten here in our studios thanks you for the book plug there, by the way.

SABATINI: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Let's go to one of the audiences the president was trying to address, the Cuban people. Our correspondent, Carrie Kahn, is with some of them. She found her way into a Cuban home and watched the speech there. Carrie, what was the response as the president spoke?

KAHN: I think people were a little stunned, a little shocked. They were also shocked to having a U.S. reporter in their bedroom. But (laughter) they were kind of muted watching the speech, but you'd hear - you'd see a lot of heads shaking yes, yes, yes, especially when President Obama spoke about the economic changes that he was hoping for, that people could do their own business, could keep their own money. That got the most response here from people. They were very happy about that. And the man who lives here, who - this is his home and was very kind to let me in here - he said this is the first American president to have ever spoken the truth. He kept say that over and over again.

INSKEEP: Well, let me...

KAHN: ...So he was very impressed by that.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about that, Carrie. Of course there were 1,100 invited guests inside the Gran Teatro. They applauded a lot. There was very little applause, though, and sometimes none - no applause at all when the president spoke about a free and open exchange of ideas, saying that citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, that they should be able to vote for their own leaders. What was the reaction in the home where you were when the president said those things?

KAHN: I think that's when people got more animated. There was a lot of heads just shaking yes, shaking yes. It was quite interesting. And then they were looking at each other sideways, giving each other glances. I don't know if they were muted in their response because I'm here or if they were just shocked by - it just seemed people were stunned by that. But they were smiling, they were shaking their head yes and looking at each other side to side.

I think the speech has been very, very well-received. It's just the image of seeing this American president talking to - this was an invitation-only crowd. They definitely (unintelligible). That theatre was not open to the Cuban people because they didn't want any sort of response. So it's very interesting just to see their responses, to see the response here. And I think it was just amazing to see an American president speaking to the Cuban people and talking about liberty and freedom and democracy and these obligations - let your people vote, keep their own money. It's just the historic feeling of that and being here in Cuba is overwhelming, I think, for everybody.

INSKEEP: Well, let's go to the guy with that book. Tom Gjelten, what stood out for you in this speech?

GJELTEN: Well, I thought it was interesting that he really formalized a huge change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. I mean, U.S. policy toward Cuba after 50 years has encompassed travel and trade restrictions. President Obama officially said that was a policy designed for the Cold War.

What that does is it detaches that policy from the promotion of human rights and democracy. He talked a lot about human rights and democracy, but it's really clear that from here on, he thinks the United States should be promoting human rights and democracy in Cuba sort of through a moral appeal, really taking that out of the U.S. policy bag toward Cuba which, again, he says that was a Cold War policy.

Well, in 1996, actually, U.S. Congress made the promotion of human rights and democracy part of the justification for travel and trade restrictions under the Helms-Burton law. President Obama has really rejected that premise completely.

INSKEEP: He says he's rejecting history. And just to note very quickly, he did talk about human rights and so forth. He didn't name names. He didn't call for anybody in particular to be freed or anything else.

GJELTEN: No, that's right. And he is going to be meeting with some dissidents, you know, later today. There were - yesterday, there were dissidents who were rounded up. President Obama did not mention that and did not call on them to be freed.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That NPR's Tom Gjelten. NPR's Carrie Kahn is with us in Havana. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley also helped us out, along with our correspondent Michele Kelemen and Jim Zarroli in New York. Thanks also to professor Christopher Sabatini.

In the few seconds we have, let's review some of the things the president said in this historic speech with Raul Castro in the audience. He said, I have come here to bury the last remnants of Cold War in the Americas. He talked about baseball, la pelota, shared interests of the Cuban and American peoples.

He said what the U.S. was doing was not working, that the embargo against Cuba was outdated. He said that he refused to be trapped by that history. And although there was not much applause inside the Gran Teatro itself as he said these next things, he talked of freeing up the Internet, of a free and open exchange of ideas, saying that citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear, that they should be able to vote for their own leaders.

He even managed to praise United States - the United States' own elections in spite of the great angst those elections have caused some people here in the United States. You've been listening to Special Coverage from NPR News of President Obama's speech from Havana. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.