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Obama to Cuba: I'm here to 'bury' Cold War rivalry

President Obama on Tuesday delivered a hopeful message in a speech to the Cuban people, telling them he came to their country to open a new chapter in the tangled history between Washington and Havana.

“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he said during a speech in the Great Theatre in Havana that was broadcast across the country on state-controlled television.

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With Cuban President Raúl Castro in attendance, Obama called for a new era of peace and friendship between the people and governments of the United States and Cuba.

He said the grandchildren of both nations' citizens would look back at the five decades of hostility “as an aberration, as just one chapter in a longer story of friendship.”

But Obama also made clear that differences over economics, human rights and political reforms still stand as obstacles on the path toward normalized relations.

The president directed many of his remarks toward Castro, who was sitting in a balcony overlooking the stage where he spoke. 

Obama received a thunderous ovation when he called on Congress to lift the trade embargo on Cuba.

But the applause died down when he called for the Cuban 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 acknowledged the frequent criticisms of the United States made by Castro, including charges that the U.S. has problems with economic inequality, racial discrimination and overseas meddling.  

“That’s just a sample; he has a much longer list,” a chuckling Obama said of Castro, a reference to Monday’s rollicking news conference that shined a light on the Cuban government's human-rights record.

But, turning his focus to the Cuban people, Obama used his own life story as an example of what is possible in a free and democratic society.

“We do have too much money in American politics," he said. "But in America, it’s still possible for someone 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.” 

Obama acknowledged many Cubans might bristle at his remarks, given the painful past of U.S.-Cuba relations. He mentioned the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and called the two countries “shadow boxers” in the fight of the Cold War. 

“I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it,” the president said. 

Obama filled his remarks with Spanish phrases and references to Cuban and American political icons, including the island nation’s independence hero José Martí and U.S. civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., to stress their common ties. 

“Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down,” the president said, referring to critics of his policy back home. “But I am appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new.”

The speech, which caps off Obama's two-day visit to Cuba, was attended by an audience of 1,500 Cubans and Americans, including dozens of business leaders and lawmakers traveling with the president. 

Still, Obama’s itinerary for the day carries reminders of the many differences that remain between the U.S. and Cuba.

Following the speech, Obama met with political opponents of the Cuban regime who are routinely arrested by authorities for protesting the government. 

"There are people here who have been detained. Some in the past, some very recently," he said of the 13 dissidents and civil society leaders gathered at the U.S. embassy. "I want to thank all of them for being here. It requires oftentimes great courage to be active in civic life here in Cuba."

Meantime, terror attacks in Brussels earlier Tuesday highlighted the threat posed by Islamic extremist groups and could take the focus off of Obama's efforts to highlight his victories in improving the United States's standing in Latin America.

Republican candidates for the White House urged Obama to cut his trip short after the terrorist attacks. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for example, tweeted that Obama should “return home immediately and get to work with our allies to respond with strength against the enemies of the West.”

Obama planned to go ahead with his planned schedule, which includes taking in a baseball game between Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

Updated at 12:29 p.m.