Obama and Cas­tro to break bread at his­toric sum­mit


U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Cas­tro will put aside decades of Cold War-era ten­sions Fri­day, sit­ting at the same ta­ble with other re­gional lead­ers for a land­mark sum­mit.

Obama and Cas­tro will join some 30 other pres­i­dents at the two-day Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas in Panama City, break­ing bread at a sea­side din­ner in a com­plex of ru­ins from the era of the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dores.

Their chief diplo­mats, U. S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry and Cuban For­eign Min­is­ter Bruno Ro­driguez, made his­tory them­selves when they held talks Thurs­day evening.

It was the first meet­ing be­tween the chief diplo­mats of the two na­tions since 1958, a year be­fore Fidel Cas­tro’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary guer­rilla seized power.

In a bomb­shell an­nounce­ment, the coun­tries re­vealed in De­cem­ber they had agreed to re­store diplo­matic ties. Talks have started.

Kerry and Ro­driguez “had a lengthy and very con­struc­tive dis­cus­sion this evening. The two agreed they made progress and that we would con­tinue to work to re­solve out­stand­ing is­sues,” a State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said in a brief state­ment.

While the meet­ings are packed with pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism, the two coun­tries have a long road ahead in their broader goal of nor­mal­iz­ing re­la­tions.

An Obama-Cas­tro meet­ing is “part of the over­all ne­go­ti­a­tions that are tak­ing place,” said for­mer Cuban diplo­mat and for­eign re­la­tions pro­fes­sor Car­los Alzu­garay. “This doesn’t end with Raul’s pres­ence at the sum­mit; it’s the be­gin­ning.”

Obama ac­knowl­edged as much on Thurs­day dur­ing a visit to Ja­maica, be­fore land­ing in Panama.

“I never fore­saw that im­me­di­ately overnight ev­ery­thing would trans­form it­self, that sud­denly Cuba be­came a part­ner diplo­mat­i­cally with us the way Ja­maica is, for ex­am­ple,” he said. “That’s go­ing to take some time.”

Stick­ing Points

The U.S. leader may bring to the ta­ble a res­o­lu­tion to an old gripe from Cuba, as a se­na­tor said the U.S. State Depart­ment rec­om­mended that he re­move Ha­vana from a list of state spon­sors of ter­ror­ism.

Cuba’s in­clu­sion on the black­list, which in­cludes Iran, Syria and Su­dan, has been a ma­jor stick­ing point in ne­go­ti­a­tions to re­open em­bassies that closed af­ter re­la­tions broke in 1961.

Cuba was first put on the black­list in 1982 for har­bor­ing ETA Basque sep­a­ratist mil­i­tants and Colom­bian FARC rebels.

Re­mov­ing Cuba from the ter­ror­spon­sor list would not be im­me­di­ate. Congress would have 45 days to de­cide whether to over­ride Obama’s rec­om­men­da­tion.

U.S. law­mak­ers who have been crit­i­cal of the diplo­matic de­tente could seize on the re­view of the list to fur­ther attack Obama’s Cuba pol­icy.

Cuba has other ma­jor de­mands, most im­por­tantly that the U.S. Congress lift an em­bargo that the com­mu­nist regime blames for the is­land’s eco­nomic trou­bles.

Wash­ing­ton wants Cuba to lift re­stric­tions on the move­ment of its diplo­mats on the is­land, giv­ing them un­fet­tered ac­cess to or­di­nary Cubans.

The rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ap­pears popular in both coun­tries.

A Marist Col­lege poll showed this week that 59 per­cent of Amer­i­cans back the diplo­matic thaw, while a sur­vey by U.S. poll­ster Bendixen & Amandi In­ter­na­tional in Cuba found that 97 of is­lan­ders are in fa­vor.

But Cuban gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers con­fronted dis­si­dents on the side­lines of the sum­mit, heck­ling them as they at­tended a civil

so­ci­ety fo­rum.

Venezuela Ten­sions

A meet­ing be­tween Cas­tro and Obama at the sum­mit will pro­vide a pic­ture mo­ment to im­mor­tal­ize the diplo­matic thaw that they an­nounced in De­cem­ber.

The two lead­ers briefly shook hands at Nel­son Man­dela’s fu­neral in 2013, but they now have a chance for more face time.

The White House said the two would have time to in­ter­act, but the ex­tent of the en­counter re­mains a mys­tery and could fall short of a for­mal, bi­lat­eral meet­ing.

But as Obama moves to re­move an old source of ten­sion in U.S. re­la­tions with Latin Amer­ica, a new headache has emerged since he im­posed sanc­tions against Venezue­lan of­fi­cials ac­cused of hu­man rights abuses in an op­po­si­tion crack­down.

Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, Ha­vana’s main ally in the re­gion, said Thurs­day he had gath­ered 13.4 mil­lion signatures in a pe­ti­tion urg­ing Obama to lift his ex­ec­u­tive or­der, which calls Cara­cas a U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity threat.

Maduro wel­comed White House state­ments say­ing it does not see Venezuela as a threat af­ter all.

But, he added, “I ask Obama why he signed this or­der. If he doesn’t an­swer ... it will be im­pos­si­ble to open a new era” in U.S.Venezue­lan re­la­tions.


A man works at a bean stall at a mar­ket be­side a mu­ral with a pic­ture of revo­lu­tion hero Ernesto “Che” Gue­vara in Ha­vana, Thurs­day, April 9.

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