Obama's Cuba moves overshadowed by Brussels attacks

Barack Obama, Cuba, Brussels
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President Obama intended to tie a bow on his historic visit to Cuba on Tuesday with a speech to the Cuban people and an appearance at an exhibition baseball game.

But world events got in the way. 

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Explosions in Brussels Tuesday morning killed at least 31 people and eclipsed the final day of Obama’s trip. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility. Republicans called for the president to cut short his week-long tour of Latin America.

But Obama was determined to follow through with his schedule. He departed Cuba Tuesday afternoon to Argentina, another country in the region with which he’s looking to pursue closer ties. 

Before that, the First Family took in the first three innings of an afternoon game between Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, drawing fire from critics who said it showed an lack of seriousness toward the response to the attacks.

Donning a white button-down shirt and sunglasses, Obama said during an in-game interview that it is “always a challenge" to balance respect for the victims with preventing terrorists from interrupting people’s lives. 

“The whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people’s ordinary lives,” the president told ESPN. 

Obama said one of the proudest moments of his presidency was witnessing Boston fans file into Fenway Park for a Red Sox game five days after the 2013 marathon bombing. Star player David Ortiz delivered a memorable, profanity-laced speech about the city’s strength on that occasion.

“That is the kind of resilience and the kind of strength we have to continually show in the face of these terrorists," Obama said. "They cannot defeat America.”

Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro stood for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the strikes in Belgium. 

The president also addressed the attacks during a speech earlier Tuesday at Havana’s Great Theater. 

“We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world,” he said. 

The terror attacks in the Belgian capital highlighted ISIS’s reach in Europe and the West. They also took the focus away from Obama's emphasis on his efforts to improve the United States's standing in Latin America.

Republican candidates for the White House urged Obama to end his trip and return to the U.S. or travel to Brussels itself. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich tweeted that Obama should “return home immediately and get to work with our allies to respond with strength against the enemies of the West.”

“While our friends and allies are attacked by radical Islamic terrorists, President Obama is spending his time going to baseball games with the Castros and standing at a press conference with Raúl Castro as a prop, while Castro denies there are any political prisoners in Cuba,” Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe Hill's 12:30 Report Trump hires Florida chief strategist, new pollster Lynch pressured to recuse herself after Clinton tarmac meeting MORE (Texas) said, according to The Washington Post. 

Republican frontrunner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDem immigration platform courts Hispanics Dem platform draft adopts Sanders proposal on taxing foreign earnings Dem draft platform a full repudiation of Trump MORE tweeted Obama “looks and sounds so ridiculous making his speech in Cuba, especially in the shadows of Brussels.”

It’s not the first time events abroad have overshadowed some of Obama’s signature foreign policy initiatives.

Last November, terror attacks in Paris and Mali cast a cloud over Obama’s trip to Malaysia, which had been designed to deepen economic ties in the region and advance his administration’s pivot to Asia. 

Ultimately, Obama decided the push to improve ties with Cuba was too important to put off. 

The president’s appearance at Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano wasn’t just fun and games. It was an iconic sports moment meant to highlight the cultural links between the U.S. and Cuba.

Rather than place overt pressure on Cuba to open up its political system, Obama is betting that closer economic and cultural ties will spur the Castro government to adopt reforms.

That approach was also on display during Obama’s speech to the Cuban people earlier Tuesday, in which he declared he traveled to the country to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”

In an address filled with Spanish phrases and references to Cuban and American political heroes, such as independence leader José Martí and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama stressed the ties that bind the two peoples together. 

“As we normalize our relations, I believe it can help foster a greater sense of unity in the Americas,” Obama said. “Todos somos Americanos.” [“We are all Americans.”]

Still, Obama’s speech carried reminders of the deep differences that remain between the U.S. and Cuba.

Cuban members of the audience sat on their hands when Obama urged the government to make policy changes, including allowing private businesses to hire Cuban citizens, recognizing the rights of freedom of speech and religion, and expanding Internet access across the island.  

“Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba,” he said. 

Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the first by a sitting U.S. president in nine decades, has produced some hopeful moments, as well as some awkward ones. 

Monday’s rollicking news conference with Castro showed the two leaders are far from being on the same page when it comes to human rights. 

But it also provided a rare opportunity for American journalists to hold the Cuban leader to account for his government's practice of jailing dissidents and stifling free speech.

Obama, however, acknowledged that some of the 13 dissidents and civil society members he met with on Tuesday oppose his decision to normalize relations with Cuba.

The president said on ESPN he told them that without reestablishing those ties, “we could not do what I did today, which was speak to the entire Cuban population.”