Saturday 24 March 2018

US President Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro vow to reach for peace

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives from Panama aboard Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives from Panama aboard Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

US president Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro sat down together in the first formal meeting of the countries' leaders in half a century, pledging to seek the peaceful relationship that has eluded their nations for generations.

In a small conference room in a Panama City convention centre, 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, Mr 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," he said. "And over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries."

President Castro, for his part, said he agreed with everything Mr Obama had said - a stunning statement in itself for the Cuban leader. But he added the caveat that they had "agreed to disagee" at times.

Mr 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," he said in Spanish. "Some things we will agree with and others we won't."

Not since 1958 have a US and Cuban leader convened a substantial meeting. Then, 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 US spent decades trying to either isolate or actively overthrow the Cuban government.

In a stroke of coincidence, Eisenhower's meeting with Batista also took place in Panama, imbuing the session between Mr Obama and Mr 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 was not announced publicly in advance, White House aides had suggested the two leaders were looking for an opportunity to meet while in Panama and to discuss efforts to open embassies in Havana and Washington, among other issues.

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

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

Then, in an abrupt about face, he apologised for letting his emotions get the best of him. He said many US presidents were at fault for that troubled history but Mr Obama was not one of them.

"I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution," Mr Castro said through a translator, noting that Mr Obama was not even born when the US began sanctioning the island nation. "I apologise to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this."

Mr Obama agreed, saying: "The Cold War has been over for a long time. And I'm not interested in having battles frankly that started before I was born."

The flurry of diplomacy kicked off on Wednesday when the leaders spoke by phone - only the second known call between US and Cuban presidents in decades. It continued on Friday evening when Mr Obama and Mr Castro traded handshakes and small talk at the summit's opening ceremonies, setting social media abuzz with photos and mobile phone video.

Mr Obama and Mr Castro sent shockwaves throughout the hemisphere in December when they announced the plan for rapprochement and their envoys have spent the ensuing months working through thorny issues such as sanctions, the reopening of embassies and the island nation's place on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

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

Removal from the terror list is a top priority for Mr 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," he conceded yesterday. "We had no other choice but to give up or to fight back."

Yet Mr Obama's delay in de-listing Cuba comes as the US seeks concessions of its own - namely, the easing of restrictions on American diplomats' freedom of movement in Havana and better human rights protections.

The president met Cuban dissidents at a civil society forum on Friday and said the US would continue pressing Cuba on issues like democracy and human rights.

"We have very different views about how society should be organised," Mr Obama told reporters just before returning to Washington.

A successful detente would form a cornerstone of Mr Obama's foreign policy legacy. But it's an endeavour he cannot undertake alone. Only Congress can fully lift the onerous US sanctions regime on Cuba and there are deep pockets of opposition in the US to taking that step.

As he sat down with Mr Obama, Mr Castro observed that nothing was truly static and 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."

Press Association

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