U.S President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro shared a stage and took part in a gala dinner Friday at the opening of the VII Summit of the Americas, as the formerly hostile nations continued their slow dance toward reconciliation.
While there's still a huge chasm to close for countries that haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1961, the opening ceremony came amid speculation that the two leaders might have a more substantial conversation Saturday and that the communist island might be taken off the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism.
Friday evening, Obama and Castro greeted each other and shook hands, according to the White House.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy National Security adviser and one of the architects of the new Cuba policy, said he expected a more substantial conversation between the two leaders, Saturday. “We certainly do anticipate that they will have the opportunity to see each other at the summit [Saturday] to have a discussion,” he said.
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Rhodes said the Cubans were also anticipating that there would be a time for such a conversation on the sidelines of the summit.
The U.S. and Cuba have been in talks to normalize relations since December, and while on a trip to Jamaica Thursday, Obama said that he received a recommendation from the State Department about Cuba’s status as a state-sponsor of terrorism. There have been reports that a status change could be announced this week.
Rhodes said Friday that the president’s national security staff was reviewing the State Department’s recommendation. “We’re not all the way through the process,” he added.
This is the first time Cuba has been invited to the gathering of hemispheric leaders since the event was launched in 1994 — and not everyone was happy with its presence or its possible removal from the terrorism list.
“The Obama administration should look to facts, not politics to guide their decision,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who opposes removing Cuba from the list.
“A country cannot be removed from the list of state sponsors of terror if it continues to pursue the same policy of subversion and provides support for acts of international terrorism such as providing safe haven to foreign terrorist organizations and harboring U.S. fugitives,” she said.
Among the fugitives from U.S. justice who have been granted political asylum in Cuba is Assata Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard. A Black Liberation Army member, she was convicted of the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper and was serving a life sentence when she escaped from jail in 1979 and lived underground until she fled to Cuba.
Long-standing tensions within Cuban society were also on display Friday when Cuban dissidents and supporters of the Cuban government clashed outside the Hotel Panama where a Civil Society Forum brought together leaders from a broad cross-section of the Americas.
Wednesday’s phone call was only the second time U.S. and Cuban presidents have spoken by phone in more than a half-century. Rhodes said the decision to talk by phone was a mutual one.
During the call, the leaders reviewed the status of efforts to restore diplomatic relations and open embassies as well as topics to be addressed at the summit, said Rhodes during a media briefing.
“I think they understand this is a very unique occurrence in the hemisphere — the first summit that Cuba is taking part in,” Rhodes said.
Late Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodríguez also held a “lengthy and very constructive” meeting, according to a State Department official.
That conversation, said Rhodes, centered on practical matters related to the formal opening of embassies and renewing diplomatic ties.
Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterized the three-hour meeting as “respectful” and “constructive.”
Such high-level contacts between U.S. and Cuban officials would have been “unimaginable a year ago,” Rhodes said. “We’re in new territory here.”
At previous summits, the United States had become increasingly isolated over its Cuba policy.
“Particularly at this summit, symbolism matters,” said Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Moving hostility over Cuba off the table opens the door to more meaningful dialogue on other topics at the summit, she said.
After his meeting with Varela, Obama called Panama a “proud democracy” and praised its efforts to promote transparency and accountability, and its economic success.
“I think President Obama is going to leave a legacy the way he is supporting Hispanics in the United States, and also his new policy for Cuba, for us, is very important,” said Varela.
Obama also made a quick morning visit to the Panama Canal, met with Central American presidents to discuss efforts to curb narco-trafficking and criminal gangs and his request for $1 billion to support security and human development in the region; joined leaders from Panama, Brazil and Mexico at a CEO Summit roundtable Friday afternoon; and participated in a roundtable at the parallel Civil Society Forum.
With his jacket thrown over his shoulder and wearing sunglasses to beat the humid 88-degree heat, Obama visited the Miraflores locks and crossed a narrow walkway spanning the American-built canal after visiting the control tower. Secret Service gunboats were stationed in the lock system near the section where the president crossed, according to White House Press pool reports.
The canal is currently undergoing a $5.25 billion expansion to be able to handle the longer, wider and heavier post-Panamax ships that are increasingly being used by the world’s leading shipping lines.
Panama Canal Administrator Jorge Quijano said that the expansion, set to open to commercial traffic in early 2016, is now about 87 percent complete, and that a stop by the president was logical because the United States is the canal’s top user.
“The Panama Canal is a testament to human ingenuity and vision. The world thanks Panama for its stewardship of this vital link to our shared prosperity,” Obama wrote in the canal guest book.
During the CEO Summit, Obama noted that everyone in the region now had a “practical orientation” toward their economies. Then he quickly corrected himself. “Maybe not everybody, but almost everybody,” he said as the audience laughed.
Obama said for the economies of the hemisphere to continue to grow, focus on four principles is needed: education and worker training; infrastructure improvements; better governance; and broad-based economic development.
At the Civil Society Forum, Obama saluted “strong and vibrant civil societies” — ordinary men and women — that make “strong, successful countries.”
“So civil society is the conscience of our countries,” he said “It’s the catalyst of change. It’s why strong nations don’t fear active citizens. Strong nations embrace and support and empower active citizens.”
And even if such active citizens aren’t always right, that isn’t the question, the president said. “The question is, do you have a society in which that conversation, that debate can be tested and ideas are tested in the marketplace.”
That hectic presidential schedule took place before the Summit of the Americas even officially opened Friday evening at the Atlapa Convention Center and leaders gathered for a group photo and dinner in Panama Viejo, the city’s historic district.
During the morning, Cuba once again took center stage as the Cuban delegation boycotted the Forum on Civil Society over the presence of Cuban dissidents and activists who carried posters saying, “Democracy is Respect.” There was a heated encounter as the two sides tried to shout each other down and pushed and shoved at each other for the second day in a row.
On Friday, representatives from official Cuban organizations continued to circulate pictures of some dissident Cuban invitees posing with Luís Posada Carriles, a former CIA agent who bombed tourist sites in Cuba in 1997, and Félix Rodriguez, also a U.S. agent who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion and was present at the interrogation and death of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
“Those mercenaries have received an invitation to participate in the plenary this afternoon,” the group said in a statement. “Out of respect for the host country and the rest of the leaders, including President Obama, the delegation that represents the authentic Cuban civil society has decided not to participate.”
Some delegates from Argentina and Nicaragua said they were upset because Cuba had once again stolen the show.
Rhodes said that the United States renounces any use of violence to silence the voices of civil society activists and citizens “whether they be from Cuba or anywhere in the Americas.
“What you’re seeing at this summit is, those voices were not silenced. They are, together with people from across the region, representing civil society who have differences of views,” he said.
“We’ve been very clear we’ll continue to speak up for human rights, and we're going to continue to have differences as it relates to the nature of Cuba’s political system — just as I would fully anticipate the Cuban government to make clear its opposition to the United States’ ongoing activities in Guantánamo Bay, for instance,” Rhodes said.
Wyss reported from Panama City and Whitefield from Miami. McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson and el Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gamez Torres contributed from Panama City.