Anticipation Rises for Obama, Castro to Talk – Voice of America

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro were set to make history Saturday with a meeting on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

The face-to-face talks would mark the first meeting of U.S. and Cuban leaders since 1956, coming after the two presidents announced plans in December to normalize relations between their two nations.

At the opening of the summit Friday evening, Obama and Castro shook hands, a gesture widely seen as a symbol of their effort to bury decades of animosity.

It has been two years since their first handshake at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Obama administration officials said Friday’s interaction was informal, without substantive conversation.

But there is speculation Saturday’s meeting could make news if Obama uses the occasion — as some observers anticipate he will — to announce a decision to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba’s demand to be taken off the list has been an obstacle in negotiations over restoring diplomatic ties.

Cuba’s status revisited

Obama announced Thursday in Jamaica that a State Department review of Cuba’s status has been completed and said he was awaiting a final recommendation.

Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Foreign Relations panel, said the recommendation from the State Department was to remove Cuba from the terrorism list.  “The United States has a unique opportunity to begin a fresh chapter with Cuba,” he said.

The president previously signaled he would be willing to drop the “state terrorism” label as part of normalizing relations with Cuba. The three other countries on the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.

“Throughout this process, our emphasis has been on the facts,” Obama said.  “So, we want to make sure that given that this is a powerful tool to isolate those countries that genuinely do support terrorism, that when we make those designations, we’ve got strong evidence that in fact that’s the case, and as circumstances change, then that list will change as well.”

On Wednesday, Obama and Castro spoke by phone before the U.S. leader left for the summit, according to the White House. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the two leaders reviewed efforts to fully restore diplomatic relations but that there are still “differences” remaining between them.

The two leaders also spoke by telephone briefly in December, before Mr. Obama announced the shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Their developing relationship has not gone unnoticed.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised both leaders at the opening ceremony of the summit.

“I would like to once again commend the leadership of President Obama of the United States and President Castro for initiating normalization of bilateral relations,” Ban said.

Kerry and counterpart meet

Ahead of the talks between the two presidents, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met his Cuban counterpart late Thursday on the sidelines of the summit – the highest-level direct meeting in decades between the two governments

A senior State Department official said Kerry’s talk with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was “very constructive,” and that both sides “agreed they made progress.”

Obama said Friday he is pleased that Cuba is being represented for the first time at the Summit of the Americas.  

In a speech to civil society leaders at this year’s gathering in Panama City, he said he hopes efforts to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba will improve the lives of the Cuban people.

“Civil society is the conscience of our countries. It’s the catalyst of change,” he said, adding “strong nations don’t fear active citizens, strong nations embrace and support and empower active citizens.”

“As we move towards the process of normalization, we’ll have our differences government to government with Cuba, on many issues, just as we differ at times with other nations within the Americas, just like we differ with our closest allies, there is nothing wrong with that,” Obama said. “But I am here to say when we do speak out we’re going to do so, because the United States of America does believe, and will always stand for, a certain set of universal values.”

Obama also reassured regional leaders the U.S. was no longer interested in imposing its will on Latin America: “The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed the United States could meddle with impunity — those days are past.”


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