Obama and Castro meet after 50-year deadlock
Grins, handshakes, and a reappraisal of the Cold War were all on the table
Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30
It was the handshake that made history. Barack Obama and Raul Castro exchanged grins and pleasantries as they turned the page on the Cold War with the first formal meeting between leaders of their countries in more than five decades.
The US president and Cuban leader were mingling with other heads of state at the opening of a regional summit when they made their cordial introductions in the middle of the crowd. The men clutched each other's hands as they continued to talk, nod and smile in what, in terms of the body language of diplomacy, counted as a warm greeting.
Such encounters are normally routine at international gatherings. But not for leaders of countries that have been adversaries since Mr Castro's brother Fidel overthrew a US-backed dictator in 1959 and quickly turned the island into a Soviet ally and missile base at the height of the Cold War.
The exchange before the opening dinner of the Summit of the Americas in Panama was the prelude for what White House aides called "substantial" talks arranged for the sidelines of the main meeting.
It was the first meeting between the presidents since they announced in December that they were restoring diplomatic relations, and the highest level American-Cuban encounter since Fidel Castro shook hands with Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959 in Washington.
The two leaders outlined their expected approaches and talking points for the face-to-face meeting in their speeches to the main summit. Mr Castro rehearsed a long litany of grievances against the US in a combative address that ran well past its allotted time. But he also described Mr Obama as "an honest man" who should not be held responsible for the actions of his predecessors. And in a remarkable moment of praise for a US leader, Mr Castro said: "I admire him and his life. I think his behaviour has a lot to do with his humble background."
Mr Obama declared: "This shift in US policy represents a turning point for the entire region." He said the US was not tethered to the past and hoped Cuba and Havana could seize on the "momentum", even while differences remained.
"The Cold War's been over for a long time. I'm not interested in having battles that started before I was born."
Mr Obama also took a swipe at attacks from Rafael Correa, Ecuador's left-wing president. He criticised Mr Correa's jailing of critics and said using the US as a "punching bag" was "not going to bring progress".
The agenda drawn up by officials for the leaders' sit-down covered moves to reopen embassies amid delays in negotiations over Cuban demands, and Havana's presence on a US list of state sponsors of terrorism - a designation Mr Obama is about to lift.
However, there was a stark reminder that Cuba remains a dictatorship as regime activists tried to block access to dissidents at a forum with Mr Obama, calling them "mercenaries" paid by the US. Those scuffles were condemned by leading Cuban-Americans and Mr Obama's Republican critics, who accused him of selling out to communist autocrats.
In Panama, however, Mr Obama said the days of the US "meddling" in its regional "backyard" were gone. At forum of civic groups, he said: "The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past."
Nevertheless, he also met Cuban dissidents and praised civil society for supporting human rights movements, fighting apartheid and fighting communism.
Away from the clashes outside the meetings, it was the Obama-Castro encounter that dominated attention. "It's hard to recall any previous summit which has been so centred on an anticipated encounter," a senior Panamanian diplomat said.
The growing drumbeat of international calls for embracing Cuba, which was barred from attending summits by the US, was joined by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General. Speaking at the inaugural session, he turned to look at Mr Obama to "congratulate" him on normalising relations with Mr Castro, whom he proceeded to toast.