Nahal Toosi, on Politico
President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met Saturday in a landmark session that saw both pointing to the future, while also sounding cautious notes about the challenges that come with ending their decades-old rivalry.
The hour-long discussion was the first time the leaders of the United States and Cuba have held a formal, face-to-face meeting in more than 50 years, and it comes as Obama is expected to soon remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The two sat down together on the sideline of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, and both delivered brief public remarks before going into a private session.
“This is obviously an historic meeting,” said Obama, who spoke first. He noted the complicated nature of U.S.-Cuban relations since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution seized power in 1959 and acknowledged that the two countries would continue to have “deep and significant differences,” including on human rights issues.
“But I think what we have both concluded is that we can disagree with the spirit of respect and civility, and that over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship in our two countries,” Obama said.
Castro echoed that the two countries would have to agree to disagree on some matters, but he also warned: “We need to be patient, very patient.”
“We can develop a friendship between our two peoples,” said the Cuban leader, whose remarks were translated from Spanish. “We shall continue advancing in the meetings which are taking place in order to reestablish relations between our countries. We shall open our embassies. We shall visit each other, having exchanges, people to people. And all that matters is what those neighbors can do; we are close neighbors, and there are many things that we can have.”
A senior Obama administration official told reporters after the meeting that the two leaders had had a frank discussion that touched on topics including fugitives in each country, details about re-opening embassies on each others’ soil and the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
The official said that Obama told Castro he would make a decision on removing Cuba from the list in the “coming days.” The U.S. president had been expected to reveal his decision during the summit, but he told Castro that the State Department’s recent review of Cuba’s listing is now under inter-agency scrutiny.
Obama also told Castro that U.S. diplomats who would be stationed in Cuba need to be able to “move around the country,” the administration official said. The White House understands “this is not going to be like our embassy in London” but more flexibility is needed, the official said.
Castro brought up the embargo, saying he would like to see it lifted. That would require an act of Congress, although the White House is taking some steps to ease travel and trade restrictions.
The warming relationship between the communist-led country and the United States has been a major focus at the summit, where many Latin American leaders have hailed Obama’s attempts to engage Havana.
Cuba is attending the summit for the first time; in the past, it was excluded from the gathering due to U.S. objections, and its absence was a growing point of contention between the U.S. and other countries at the event.
Earlier Saturday, in a speech that listed a litany of Cuban grievances toward the United States, Castro stunned the audience by suddenly praising Obama and saying the U.S. president “had no responsibility” for America’s past actions.
“I apologize to President Obama and to others here,” Castro said, according to The Associated Press. “I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the [Cuban] revolution. I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”
“In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man,” said Castro, 83, who stepped in to lead Cuba nearly a decade ago after his more famous brother, Fidel, fell ill and later decided to retire from the presidency.
Obama weighs removing Cuba from terror list
There’s already significant congressional opposition to the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba, as well as criticism from Republicans looking to run for president in 2016.
“This president has shown he is willing to do what nine previous presidents of both parties would not: Cave to a communist dictator in our own hemisphere,” White House hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said in a statement.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who also is expected to run for president, suggested Obama had a better relationship with Castro than with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Why legitimize a cruel dictator of a repressive regime?” Bush asked on Twitter.
But there are many defenders of the Obama administration’s moves as well, including some Republicans who view better ties with Cuba as good for the business community. A congressional attempt to prevent the de-listing of Cuba from the terrorism list is unlikely to get a veto-proof majority.
U.S. officials have insisted that although they want to quickly restore ties to Cuba, they will not be shy in continuing to express concerns about human rights abuses on the island nation.
At a press conference Saturday evening, Obama repeated those sentiments. But, he added, as far as Cuba goes, “We are not in the business of regime change,” and “Cuba is not a threat to the United States.”
Obama was clear throughout the summit that the U.S. will not be hamstrung by the past.
“The Cold War’s been over for a long time,” the 53-year-old president said at one point. “I’m not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born.”
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