Obama, Cas­tro poised for land­mark talks in Panama

The China Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LAU­RENT THOMET AND AN­DREW BEATTY

Hours af­ter shak­ing hands, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Cas­tro head into his­toric talks in Panama on Satur­day in their ef­forts to bury decades of an­i­mos­ity.

Tak­ing their bid to re­store diplo­matic ties to a new level, Obama and Cas­tro will have a dis­cus­sion on the side­lines of the Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas in Panama City, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials.

The two lead­ers al­ready said hello late Fri­day, greet­ing each other and shak­ing hands — a ges­ture rich in sym­bol­ism — as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and other lead­ers looked on, be­fore the 35-na­tion sum­mit’s in­au­gu­ra­tion.

They shook hands only once be­fore, at Nel­son Man­dela’s me­mo­rial ser­vice in 2013.

The face-to-face talks will be the cli­max of their sur­prise an­nounce­ment on De­cem­ber 17 that, af­ter 18 months of se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions, they would seek to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions be­tween the United States and Cuba that broke off in 1961.

The last time U.S. and Cuban lead­ers met was in 1956, three years be­fore Fidel Cas­tro came to power.

“We’re in new ter­ri­tory here,” said se­nior Obama ad­vi­sor Ben Rhodes, re­fer­ring to the flurry of diplo­macy that in­cluded Thurs­day the first meet­ing be­tween US and Cuban for­eign min­is­ters since 1958.

“This is not just about two lead­ers sit­ting down to­gether,” he said, cit­ing Obama’s de­ci­sion to ease trade and travel re­stric­tions with com­mu­nist Cuba.

“It’s about fun­da­men­tally chang­ing how the United States en­gages Cuba — its gov­ern­ment, its peo­ple, its civil so­ci­ety.”

Ter­ror List Hur­dle

The for­mat of the meet­ing has yet to be con­firmed, but Rhodes said the two lead­ers would likely talk about the ne­go­ti­a­tions to re­store diplo­matic ties as well as lin­ger­ing dis­agree­ments.

“As we move to­ward the process of nor­mal­iza­tion, we’ll have our dif­fer­ences, gov­ern­ment to gov­ern­ment, with Cuba on many is­sues,” Obama told a re­gional civil so­ci­ety fo­rum on Fri­day. “There’s noth­ing wrong with that.”

Cuba has de­manded to be re­moved from a U.S. list of state spon­sors of ter­ror­ism be­fore em­bassies can re­open, not­ing that this has blocked the coun­try’s ac­cess to bank credit.

The White House in­di­cated that Obama was not yet ready to de­cide whether to re­move Ha­vana from the black­list, but that it could not rule out an an­nounce­ment in Panama.

“The po­ten­tial re­moval from the list will rep­re­sent the cur­rent U.S.-Cuba re­la­tion­ship be­com­ing more prag­matic,” said Diego Moya-Ocam­pos, Amer­i­cas an­a­lyst at U.S. con­sul­tancy IHS Coun­try Risk.

“This is a limited but sig­nif­i­cant step,” he said. “But over­all en­gage­ment will still be limited by the U.S. em­bargo.”

Obama has urged the U. S. Congress to lift the em­bargo on Cuba, which was im­posed in 1962, bar­ring most trade with the is­land as well as tourism.

“The pres­ence here to­day of Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro of Cuba em­bod­ies a long­ing ex­pressed by many in the re­gion,” Ban said.

All the re­gional lead­ers then headed to a pri­vate din­ner.

‘New chap­ter’

Rhodes said Obama and Cas­tro had al­ready dis­cussed the on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions and the sum­mit by tele­phone Wed­nes­day — their sec­ond phone call since De­cem­ber, when they an­nounced that the United States and Cuba would move to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions.

Un­der­scor­ing his in­creas­ing en­gage­ment with Latin Amer­ica, Obama will also likely meet Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos and Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Dilma Rouss­eff, who can­celed a U.S. trip in 2013 over rev­e­la­tions of U.S. spy­ing against her.

But in a move that could ir­ri­tate Ha­vana, Obama held a closed- door dis­cus­sion be­fore the sum­mit with dis­si­dent lawyer Lar­itza Di­versent and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist Manuel Cuesta Moura, along with a dozen other ac­tivists from the Amer­i­cas.

While declar­ing that the days of U.S. med­dling in the re­gion were over, Obama promised civil so­ci­ety rep­re­sen­ta­tives that “the United States will stand up along­side you ev­ery step of the way.”

Turn­ing to Cuba, Obama said that even as “a new chap­ter” in re­la­tions was launched, “we’ll have our dif­fer­ences, gov­ern­ment to gov­ern­ment, with Cuba on many is­sues.”

For his part, Cas­tro held talks with the pres­i­dent of the U.S. cham­ber of com­merce, Tom Dono­hue, putting to­gether the leader of the only com­mu­nist regime in the Amer­i­cas with a ma­jor fig­ure of cap­i­tal­ism.

Venezuela ten­sion

Un­der­scor­ing his in­creas­ing en­gage­ment with Latin Amer­ica, Obama will also likely meet Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos and Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Dilma Rouss­eff, who can­celed a U.S. trip in 2013 over rev­e­la­tions of U.S. spy­ing against her.

But even as Obama seeks to turn the page on Cold War-era ten­sions, a new headache has come to the fore in the form of Venezuela.

The U.S. leader was crit­i­cized by Latin Amer­i­can na­tions af­ter he is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that slapped sanc­tions on Venezue­lan of­fi­cials over an op­po­si­tion crack­down and called the coun­try a threat to U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity.

The White House has sought to ease ten­sions ahead of the sum­mit, say­ing it did not re­ally be­lieve that Venezuela posed a threat. But the sanc­tions re­main.

Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, Ha­vana’s main ally in the re­gion, has vowed to present to Obama a pe­ti­tion with 13.4 mil­lion signatures urg­ing him to lift the or­der.

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