23 October 2016
Barack Obama meets Raul Castro at a regional summit in Panama, the first meeting of its kind between the US and Cuba in 60 years. Photo: doralnewsonline
Barack Obama meets Raul Castro at a regional summit in Panama, the first meeting of its kind between the US and Cuba in 60 years. Photo: doralnewsonline

Obama meets Castro: Now the hard part begins

United States President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro sat down together for over an hour on Saturday at a regional summit in Panama, moving a step closer to restoring diplomatic ties.

It was the first meeting of its kind in nearly 60 years. Now comes the hard part. 

After nearly two years of secret talks and quiet diplomacy, the mood at the meeting was positive, both inside the room and out, where Latin American leaders praised Obama for ending decades of US hostility toward the communist-ruled island.

Obama clearly sees Cuba as a possible success story for his policy of engaging US foes.

At a time of multiple risks to his foreign policy record — from Iran’s nuclear program and the war in Syria to Russian involvement in Ukraine and the violence of Islamic State — getting on well with Cuba looks relatively easy.

“The Cold War is over,” Obama said.

“I think there is a strong majority both in the United States and in Cuba that says our ability to engage, to open up commerce and travel and people-to-people exchanges is ultimately going to be good for the Cuban people.”

Yet, the gulf between the two sides remains wide, illustrated by the absence of US and Cuban flags at the carefully orchestrated meeting on Saturday in a sparsely furnished conference room.

The US economic embargo, which has blocked nearly all trade between the two nations for the last five decades, is firmly in place.

Cuba’s human rights record stills draw scorn from Washington, as does US foreign policy from Havana.

“Let’s not fool ourselves. We have a lot of differences,” said Castro, 83, who has been an enemy of the United States for most of his life and still railed passionately against its past policies even as he praised Obama as “an honest man”.

“In other words, we’re willing to talk about everything with patience, with a lot of patience,” said Castro, an army general and younger brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

Obama and Castro announced in December they would work to re-establish full diplomatic ties severed in 1961, reopen embassies in each other’s capitals and free up trade and travel.

Restoring diplomatic relations is easy enough, requiring little more than the presidents’ agreement, but normalizing overall relations could take years.

Cuba has shown no signs that it is willing to allow wider political rights.

The government dismisses dissidents as mercenaries, moves quickly to stifle dissent and Castro has made clear he does not intend to allow any relaxation of Communist Party rule.

And while Cuba is looking to draw in foreign investment, any US businesses seeking to set up there need the government’s blessing.

Castro’s government moves cautiously as it has shown with its own market-style economic reforms in recent years.

In the short term, Cuba is still waiting to be removed from the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a unilateral designation that Cuba rejects as unjust.

Obama is expected to inform Congress within a few days he is taking Cuba off the list, which would free the island from some economic sanctions.

There had been some expectations that Obama would announce his intention to remove the terrorism designation and move forward on restoring diplomatic relations at the summit.

Although there is little doubt that Havana will be taken off the blacklist, US officials privately have made clear that they have sought to use the timing of the move as leverage in broader normalization negotiations.

A number of unresolved issues have slowed the process, including Washington’s wish that Cuba allow US diplomats to travel around the island and relax the police presence around the diplomatic mission in Havana, where visiting Cubans are closely watched.

“They’re building a road, and when you’re building a road you don’t expect to finish right away,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, speaking in Panama, said of the US-Cuba relationship.

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