Saturday 21 April 2018

Obama speaks with Castro by phone ahead of historic encounter

Cuba's President Raul Castro (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Cuba's President Raul Castro (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Barack Obama spoke with Cuban President Raul Castro by phone on Thursday ahead of a regional summit in Panama, the Associated Press reported on Friday.

The US President is to turn the page on half a century of hostility, signalling he will soon remove Cuba from America's list of state sponsors of terrorism, as he prepares for a historic encounter with Castro.

Hours before his arrival in Panama for a regional summit, President Obama said the State Department had finished its review of Cuba's presence on the list, a stain on the island nation's pride and a major stumbling block for efforts to mend US-Cuba ties.

A top senator confirmed that the agency had recommended removing Cuba from the list, making presidential action in the next few days all but certain.

"We don't want to be imprisoned by the past," Mr Obama said during a visit to Kingston, Jamaica. "When something doesn't work for 50 years, you don't just keep on doing it. You try something new."

With his optimistic assessment, Mr Obama sought to set the tone for the US and Cuba to come closer to closing the book on more than 50 years of estrangement, when he and Mr Castro come face to face at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City.

The highly-anticipated meeting will test the power of personal diplomacy as the two leaders attempt to move past the sticking points that have interfered with their attempt to relaunch diplomatic relations.

The US has long since stopped actively accusing Cuba of supporting terrorism and Mr Obama has hinted at his willingness to take Cuba off the list ever since he and Mr Castro announced a thaw in relations in December.

But Mr Obama has stopped short of the formal decision amid indications that the White House was reluctant to grant Cuba's request until other thorny issues such as restrictions on US diplomats in Havana were resolved.

Cuba is one of just four countries still on the US list of countries accused of repeatedly supporting global terrorism - Iran, Sudan and Syria are the others. The designation not only offends Cuba's pride but also restricts Havana's access to credit and financial systems.

Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the upper house's foreign relations panel, called the recommendation to delist Cuba an important step towards forging a more productive US-Cuba relationship.

"The United States has a unique opportunity to begin a fresh chapter with Cuba - one that advances our national interests on the island and in the hemisphere," he said.

Yet while recent polling has shown broad support for the thaw in both countries, the change has attracted fierce opposition from many other members of Congress - especially those who represent the large Cuban-American population in Florida.

House of Representatives speaker, Ohio Republican John Boehner, said there were "serious questions" about the wisdom of taking Cuba off the list "while this dictatorship, which practises repression at home and supports violence throughout the region, continues to hold power".

This year's summit is the first to include Cuba, and for Mr Castro it is a powerful opportunity to prove his country can be a responsible player on the world stage.

Mr Obama arrives having amassed some goodwill in Latin America by upending the US policy of isolating Cuba, a policy that had irritated others in the region, and by loosening immigration policies at home.

How much face time the presidents will have at the summit was unclear. Although no formal meetings were scheduled, the White House said the two would surely cross paths.

The two shared a handshake in 2013 at Nelson Mandela's funeral, a jarring image for those who still recall the levels of US-Cuban antipathy during the Cold War.

While in Panama, Mr Obama will meet Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela and other Central American leaders. He plans to speak at a forum of business leaders before joining other heads of state for dinner at Panama Viejo, home to archaeological ruins dating to the 1500s. A visit to the Panama Canal is also likely.

The wild card at the summit is Venezuela's leftist president Nicolas Maduro. Mr Obama's recent move to slap sanctions on seven leading Venezuelan figures seemed to backfire when other Latin leaders denounced it as overkill and rallied to Mr Maduro's side.

Mr Maduro had said he plans to hand Mr Obama documents with millions of signatures condemning US aggression.

In another sign of high-level engagement, US secretary of state John Kerry, also attending the summit, was meeting Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez.

Press Association

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