In his­toric meet­ing Obama, Cas­tro vow to turn page

The China Post - - FRONT PAGE -

U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Cas­tro sat down to­gether Satur­day in the first for­mal meet­ing of the two coun­try’s lead­ers in a half-cen­tury, pledg­ing to reach for the kind of peace­ful re­la­tion­ship that has eluded their na­tions for gen­er­a­tions.

In a small con­fer­ence room in a Panama City con­ven­tion cen­ter, the two sat side by side in a bid to in­ject fresh mo­men­tum into their months-old ef­fort to re­store diplo­matic ties. Re­flect­ing on the his­toric na­ture of the meet­ing, Obama said he felt it was time to try some­thing new and to en­gage with both Cuba’s gov­ern­ment and its peo­ple.

“What we have both con­cluded is that we can dis­agree with a spirit of re­spect and ci­vil­ity,” Obama said. “And over time, it is pos­si­ble for us to turn the page and de­velop a new re­la­tion­ship be­tween our two coun­tries.”

Cas­tro, for his part, said he agreed with ev­ery­thing Obama had said — a stunning state­ment in and of it­self for the Cuban leader. But he added the caveat that they had “agreed to dis­agree” at times. Cas­tro said he had told the Amer­i­cans that Cuba was will­ing to dis­cuss is­sues such as hu­man rights and free­dom of the press, main­tain­ing that “ev­ery­thing can be on the ta­ble.”

“We are dis­posed to talk about ev­ery­thing — with pa­tience,” Cas­tro said in Span­ish. “Some things we will agree with, and oth­ers we won’t.”

Not since 1958 have a U.S. and Cuban leader con­vened a sub­stan­tial meet­ing; at the time, Dwight Eisen­hower was in the White House and Ful­gen­cio Batista in charge in Cuba. But re­la­tions quickly en­tered into a deep freeze amid the Cold War, and the U.S. spent decades try­ing to ei­ther iso­late or ac­tively over­throw the Cuban gov­ern­ment.

In a stroke of co­in­ci­dence, Eisen­hower’s meet­ing with Batista in 1958 also took place in Panama, im­bu­ing Satur­day’s ses­sion be­tween Obama and Cas­tro with a sense of hav­ing come full cir­cle.

The his­toric gath­er­ing played out on the side­lines of the Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas, which this year in­cluded Cuba for the first time. Although the meet­ing wasn’t pub­licly an­nounced in ad­vance, White House aides had sug­gested the two lead­ers were look­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to meet while in Panama and to dis­cuss the on­go­ing ef­forts to open em­bassies in Ha­vana and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., among other is­sues.

At the start of their hour-long meet­ing, Obama ac­knowl­edged that Cuba, too, would con­tinue rais­ing con­cerns about U.S. poli­cies — earn­ing a friendly smirk from Cas­tro. Obama de­scribed the sit-down later as “can­did and fruit­ful” and said he and Cas­tro were able to speak about their dif­fer­ences in a pro­duc­tive way.

Even still, raw pas­sions were on vivid dis­play ear­lier in the day when Cas­tro, in a me­an­der­ing, nearly hour-long speech to the sum­mit, ran through an ex­haus­tive his­tory of per­ceived Cuban griev­ances against the U.S. dat­ing back more than a cen­tury.

Then, in an abrupt about face, he apol­o­gized for let­ting his emo­tions get the best of him. He said many U.S. pres­i­dents were at fault for that trou­bled his­tory — but that Obama isn’t one of them.

No Re­moval from Ter­ror List

“I have told Pres­i­dent Obama that I get very emo­tional talk­ing about the revo­lu­tion,” Cas­tro said through a trans­la­tor, not­ing that Obama wasn’t even born when the U.S. be­gan sanc­tion­ing the is­land na­tion. “I apol­o­gize to him be­cause Pres­i­dent Obama had no re­spon­si­bil­ity for this.” Obama agreed. “The Cold War has been over for a long time,” he said. “And I’m not in­ter­ested in hav­ing bat­tles frankly that started be­fore I was born.”

Although ear­lier in the week Obama sug­gested a de­ci­sion to re­move Cuba from the list was im­mi­nent, he de­clined to take that step Satur­day, cit­ing the need to study a re­cently com­pleted State Depart­ment re­view. Law­mak­ers briefed on that re­view have said it re­sulted in a rec­om­men­da­tion that Cuba be delisted.

Re­moval from the ter­ror list is a top pri­or­ity for Cas­tro be­cause it would not only purge a stain on Cuba’s pride, but also ease its abil­ity to con­duct sim­ple fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions.

“Yes, we have con­ducted sol­i­dar­ity with other peo­ples that could be con­sid­ered ter­ror­ism — when we were cor­nered, when we were strongly ha­rassed,” Cas­tro con­ceded ear­lier Satur­day. “We had no other choice but to give up or to fight back.”

Yet Obama’s de­lay in delist­ing Cuba comes as the U.S. seeks con­ces­sions of its own — namely, the eas­ing of re­stric­tions on Amer­i­can diplo­mats’ free­dom of move­ment in Ha­vana and bet­ter hu­man rights pro­tec­tions. Obama met with Cuban dis­si­dents Fri­day at a civil so­ci­ety fo­rum, and on Satur­day, he said the U.S. would con­tinue press­ing Cuba on is­sues like democ­racy and hu­man rights.

“We have very dif­fer­ent views about how so­ci­ety should be or­ga­nized,” Obama told re­porters just be­fore re­turn­ing to Wash­ing­ton.

A suc­cess­ful de­tente would form a cor­ner­stone of Obama’s for­eign pol­icy le­gacy. But it’s an en­deavor he can’t un­der­take alone: Only the U.S. Congress can fully lift the oner­ous U.S. sanc­tions regime on Cuba and there are deep pock­ets of op­po­si­tion in the U.S. to tak­ing that step.

As he sat down with the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, Cas­tro ob­served that noth­ing is truly static. To­day’s pro­found dis­agree­ments could turn into ar­eas of con­sen­sus to­mor­row.

“The pace of life at the present mo­ment in the world,” he said, “it’s very fast.”

Story con­tin­ues on page 2


U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, right, and Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro dur­ing their meet­ing at the Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas in Panama City on Satur­day, April 11.

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