The anticipated meeting between Obama and Castro occurred this week at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City. (Time article on the Summit below NYT article)
The event shined a light on Panama, injected an estimated $80 – $100 million into Panama’s economy, brought in an estimated 50,000 influential visitors, and lifted Panama’s political, economic and visibility status world-wide.
Visitors included most of the leaders of the entire Western Hemisphere along with other high profile attendees such as Summit founder Bill Clinton and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
An interesting effect of Obama’s move to engage Cuba was the winning of hearts and minds throughout much of Latin America. The New Times even says that the meeting in Panama has made the United States “the new star in Latin America” and evoked headlines such as “A New Era in the Americas.”
The New York Times, APRIL 12, 2015, By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD and JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS
President Obama’s talk with President Raúl Castro of Cuba drew praise from Latin American leaders and an editorial in El Universal with the headline “A New Era in the Americas.”
PANAMA — And the new star in Latin America is … the United States?
The reviews are in, and while the United States still faces plenty of tricky relations in a diverse region of 35 states, President Obama walked away with more salutes than swipes from a regional Summit of the Americas where the United States usually takes a drubbing.
The question now is whether Mr. Obama and his successors can capitalize on the new credibility Washington has earned, primarily through his reconciliation with Havana.
Mr. Obama sat down for an hourlong meeting with President Raúl Castro of Cuba, which the United States allowed to attend the summit for the first time since the meetings began in 1994. It was the first meeting between leaders of the Cold War-era foes.
Mr. Obama also announced that Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, will be accorded a state visit to Washington in June, after she canceled one in 2013 over American tapping of her communications.
He even briefly chatted with President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, who just a few hours earlier had railed against American “imperialist interference” and threatened — but notably failed to deliver to Mr. Obama — a petition demanding that the United States lift sanctions against several Venezuelan officials accused of human rights violations.
“The world of politics and diplomacy is, in good measure, one of grand symbols,” the Mexican newspaper El Universal heralded Sunday in an editorial headlined “A New Era in the Americas.”
It was not all sweetness and light, however.
Mr. Castro roasted the United States, at considerable length, over what he called its history of oppressing Cuba. The presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina followed suit.
Mr. Obama deflated expectations that he would announce Cuba was being removed from the American government’s list of nations that sponsor terror — a designation that many regional leaders find baffling, and that prevents nations from reopening their embassies. But for a region long tired of the mutual animosity and perplexed at the Cold War-era embargo, it seemed progress enough that the presidents were talking without hostility.
Perhaps more important was the shift of tone at this year’s meeting. The maligning from the left that had tended to dominate previous summits took a back seat as Mr. Castro called an American president “honest” and humble and even apologized for getting carried away with revolutionary rhetoric.
Now, the question is how will the United States spend the considerable political capital it has accrued in the region to address vexing issues such as corruption, impunity and the fragility of democracy or, in the case of Cuba, its glaring absence?
Mr. Obama acknowledged this at his news conference before leaving the summit Saturday, saying the United States was not giving up on democratic hopes for Cuba, just the approach.
“We have very different views of how society should be organized and I was very direct with him that we are not going to stop talking about issues like democracy and human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press,” Mr. Obama said.
But the United States may still find getting its point across in the region, directly or indirectly, a challenge as leaders take a more critical, “get your own house in order” eye to the polarization in Washington and the United States’ own problems with justice.
“These are societies that are not especially responsive to what Washington does or wants, and have not been for a long time,” said Julia Sweig, a Cuba and Brazil scholar at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Tex.
American sway in the region has been undercut somewhat paradoxically by the sweep of democracy since the 1970s and ever more flourishing economies — with the United States typically among the top trading partners. As a result, internal interests now routinely trump regional ones, especially when the United States is perceived as talking-down or resorting to heavy-handed tactics.
In his remarks to world leaders at the summit, Mr. Obama sought to take this on, acknowledging the imperfections of American society but also bluntly telling his peers not to dwell on the past or use the United States as a scapegoat.
“America never makes a claim about being perfect,” he said. “We can, I suppose, spend a lot of time talking about past grievances, and I suppose that it’s possible to use the United States as a handy excuse every so often for political problems that may be occurring domestically.
“But that’s not going to bring progress,” Mr. Obama continued. “That’s not going to solve the problems of children who can’t read, who don’t have enough to eat. It’s not going to make our countries more productive or more competitive in a global economy.”
Still, to its frustration, the United States has watched shades of authoritarianism show up among democratically elected leaders in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador and even Panama, where the host of the summit, President Juan Carlos Varela, was elected last summer by voters frustrated with the corruption scandals and autocratic control of his predecessor, Ricardo Martinelli.
Until now, any American effort to push for regional consensus on a broad agenda that includes addressing climate change, drug trafficking and economic prosperity has been undercut by its refusal to have relations with Cuba and its isolation of it. Many countries talked a long time about Cuba’s exclusion at previous summits.
“Despite really significant remaining differences in the region, by sweeping aside the Cuba problem I think you are going to see more leaders step up to the plate more on human rights and democracy,” said Arturo Valenzuela, the State Department’s former top diplomat for the region and a professor at Georgetown University.
He predicted regional powers such as Brazil might reward the American reconciliation with a tougher stand on Venezuela; already few countries at the summit outside of Venezuela’s closest allies joined its railing against the recent American sanctions.
Mr. Valenzuela said topics at the summit that received scant attention from the news media, including regional leaders discussing an expansion of economic opportunities, addressing inequality and promoting the work of “civil society” nongovernmental organizations to push for basic freedoms, might rise in importance, even in Cuba.
“As you get more independent civil society they can push more for change from the inside,” he said. “That is where it comes from.”
Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University in Washington, said Mr. Obama had been gaining ground in the region. It is not just his reaching out to Cuba but also his executive action on immigration, to allow more people in the country without authorization to get legal residency, he said.
“Now, we will see whether the administration can continue that momentum with engagement in Latin America and focus on the issues the region cares about,” he said.
“The United States,” he added, “needs to avoid getting trapped in unproductive disputes that look like falling back into the old American heavy-handedness in the region.”
Time Magazine, Josh Lederman and Jim Kuhnhenn/AP
April 11, 2015 and April 12, 2015
“It was time to try something new”
(PANAMA CITY) — President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro sat down together Saturday in the first formal meeting of the two country’s leaders in a half-century, pledging to reach for the kind of peaceful relationship that has eluded their nations for generations.
In a small conference room in a Panama City convention center, 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, 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,” Obama said. “And over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”
Castro, for his part, said he agreed with everything Obama had said — a stunning statement in and of itself for the Cuban leader. But he added the caveat that they had “agreed to disagee” at times. 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,” Castro said in Spanish. “Some things we will agree with, and others we won’t.”
Not since 1958 have a U.S. and Cuban leader convened a substantial meeting; at the time, 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 U.S. spent decades trying to either isolate or actively overthrow the Cuban government.
In a stroke of coincidence, Eisenhower’s meeting with Batista in 1958 also took place in Panama, imbuing Saturday’s session between Obama and 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 wasn’t publicly announced in advance, White House aides had suggested the two leaders were looking for an opportunity to meet while in Panama and to discuss the ongoing efforts to open embassies in Havana and Washington, among other issues.
At the start of their hour-long meeting, Obama acknowledged that Cuba, too, would continue raising concerns about U.S. policies — earning a friendly smirk from Castro. Obama described the sit-down later as “candid and fruitful” and said he and Castro were able to speak about their differences in a productive way.
Even still, raw passions were on vivid display earlier in the day when Castro, in a meandering, nearly hour-long speech to the summit, ran through an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the U.S. dating back more than a century.
Then, in an abrupt about face, he apologized for letting his emotions get the best of him. He said many U.S. presidents were at fault for that troubled history — but that Obama isn’t one of them.
“I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution,” Castro said through a translator, noting that Obama wasn’t even born when the U.S. began sanctioning the island nation. “I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”
“The Cold War has been over for a long time,” he said. “And I’m not interested in having battles frankly that started before I was born.”
The flurry of diplomacy kicked off Wednesday when Obama and Castro spoke by phone — only the second known call between U.S. and Cuban presidents in decades. It continued Friday evening when Obama and Castro traded handshakes and small talk at the summit’s opening ceremonies, setting social media abuzz with photos and cellphone video.
Obama and 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 re-opening of embassies and the island nation’s place on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Although earlier in the week Obama suggested a decision to remove Cuba from the list was imminent, he declined to take that step Saturday, citing the need to study a recently completed State Department review. Lawmakers briefed on that review have said it resulted in a recommendation that Cuba be delisted.
Removal from the terror list is a top priority for 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,” Castro conceded earlier Saturday. “We had no other choice but to give up or to fight back.”
Yet Obama’s delay in delisting Cuba comes as the U.S. seeks concessions of its own — namely, the easing of restrictions on American diplomats’ freedom of movement in Havana and better human rights protections. Obama met with Cuban dissidents Friday at a civil society forum, and on Saturday, he said the U.S. would continue pressing Cuba on issues like democracy and human rights.
“We have very different views about how society should be organized,” Obama told reporters just before returning to Washington.
A successful detente would form a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. But it’s an endeavor he can’t undertake alone: Only Congress can fully lift the onerous U.S. sanctions regime on Cuba and there are deep pockets of opposition in the U.S. to taking that step.
As he sat down with the American president, Castro observed that nothing is truly static. 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.”
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Darlene Superville and Nancy Benac in Washington contributed to the Time report.
Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times