Obama and Castro: Gentle giant meets feisty featherweight

 

Second meeting between the U.S. and Cuban presidents is notably warmer than relations with Congress or Cuba's patron, Russia.

 

Sarah Wheaton, Politico

 

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro held their second face-to-face meeting on Tuesday amid thawing relations even as the Republican-led U.S. Congress remains adamantly opposed.

 

Obama and Castro met briefly ahead of a broader meeting on countering ISIL at the United Nations General Assembly in New York a week ahead of a visit to Cuba by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to promote actions the administration has taken unilaterally to ease restrictions on the communist country off the Florida coast.

 

Obama expressed confidence that Congress would “inevitably” end the embargo during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. But from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate and top critic of the administration’s Cuba détente, came a reminder that such a move won’t happen soon.

 

Rubio wrote Obama a letter on Tuesday expressing concerns about reports speculating that the United States might abstain from voting on an anti-embargo resolution in the U.N. Such a move, Rubio warned, could hinder future State Department nominations in the Senate.

 

Top administration officials, including U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, have said they can’t say how they’ll deal with the Cuba-backed resolution until the text has been completed.

 

“Regardless of your beliefs,” Rubio writes to Obama, the administration should support existing U.S. law in an international setting.

 

Not doing so, Rubio writes, “would send a dangerous message to tyrants throughout the world that the President of the United States refuses to pursue policies changes through the U.S. democratic system and instead seeks to challenge his country’s own laws in international fora.”

 

Rubio concludes that the administration’s choice will be “key to my advice and consent of involved State Department nominees in the coming months.”

 

The White House is also pessimistic about the likelihood that Congress will approve an ambassador for the newly opened U.S. embassy in Havana. But the administration is doing what it can to ease restrictions on its own, announcing further loosening of travel rules and making it easier for U.S. businesses to operate in Cuba earlier this month. Next week, Pritzker will travel to Cuba, making her the second cabinet official after Secretary of State John Kerry to visit the country since the plans to restore diplomatic ties were announced in December.

 

Ahead of their closed-press meeting on Tuesday, Obama and Castro shook hands, with the latter laughing as he looked up and acknowledged the American president’s striking height advantage.

 

That dynamic seemed to play out at the U.N. general session on Monday, with Obama taking the role of gentle giant to Castro’s feisty featherweight.

 

Obama took a magnanimous tone in his speech, casting the Cuba opening in the vein of his engagement policy, which also includes the completed Iran nuclear deal and Monday’s fresh try at talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

 

“We have to be strong enough to acknowledge when what you’re doing is not working,” Obama said of the 55-year-old embargo. The U.S. still has major qualms with the island’s human rights record, he continued, and “but I’m confident that openness, not coercion, will support the reforms and better the life the Cuban people deserve.”

 

Obama’s call for Congress to lift the embargo was the only applause line of his 42-minute speech.

 

Castro, on the other hand, took a more bellicose tone in his first speech to the U.N., saying normalization could only occur after the U.S. vacates the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and ends propaganda broadcasts and espionage, and “when our people are compensated for the human and economic damages they still endure."

 

He also criticized the U.S. for a history of “wars of aggression and interference in the internal affairs of the states, the ousting of sovereign governments by force, the so-called ‘soft coups’ and the recolonization of territories.”

 

Castro did, however, endorse the nuclear deal with Iran. For his part, Obama got an unplanned opportunity to personally seal the agreement - the signature foreign policy initiative of his presidency - when he shook hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the Secretary General’s luncheon on Monday, according to a senior administration official.

 

 

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