President Barack Obama called on US Congress to lift the decades-old trade embargo on Cuba, saying the United States must admit the economic sanctions imposed in 1962 were a failure and it is time to move on.

Speaking to an audience at the Grand Theatre of Havana on Tuesday, Obama also urged the communist leadership of Cuba to grant more freedom to its citizens.

The US embargo - which Cuba says has cost the country $1.1 trillion over five decades - is "an outdated burden on the Cuban people", said the American president.

 Obama and Castro hold historic meeting in Havana

"We have to have courage to acknowledge that it was not working. I know history but I refused to be trapped by it," said Obama, the first US president to visit Cuba in 88 years.

"I have come here to bury the last remnants of the Cold War."

Obama also pointedly urged President Raul Castro, who was in the audience, to extend political and economic freedom to his people.

"Citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear," he said. "The rule of law should not include arbitrary detention."

Al Jazeera's Lucia Newman, reporting from Havana, said Cuban citizens were "very moved" by Obama's speech. 

But in an interview with Al Jazeera, Sujatha Fernandes, professor of sociology at the City University of New York, said there is still "real fear" of Cubans being able to express themselves.  


READ MORE: US-Cuba rapprochement and the future


Obama's rationale for coming to Havana was grounded in the notion that direct interaction with Cubans would do more to empower them and bring about change than decades of isolation ever did.

His meeting later on Tuesday with Cuban dissidents critical of Castro's government was a prerequisite for the trip, the White House said, rebutting suggestions that Obama is rewarding a system whose limits on dissent run counter to American values.

Following his meeting with the dissidents, Obama and his family joined Castro to watch an exhibition baseball game between the Cuban national team and the US baseball team Tampa Bay Rays at the Latinoamericano stadium in Havana.

US President Barack Obama and his family watch an exhibition baseball game in Havana with Cuban President Raul Castro [Reuters]
 Cuban Americans divided over Obama's Havana trip

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies