President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro held a historic conversation on the sidelines of the VII Summit of the Americas on Saturday after Cuba took a seat at the hemispheric gathering for the first time.
“We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future,” Obama said to Castro. “Over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”
After Obama spoke, the two leaders rose and shook hands. Through a translator, Castro said he agreed with the American president.
The former adversaries, Castro said, might still have their differences, “but we are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient, very patient.
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“We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow,” Castro added.
Obama, who said the majority of Americans and Cubans have responded positively to the new Cuba policy, acknowledged the two countries’ deep and significant differences.
He said the United States would continue to speak out on its democracy and human rights concerns and he expected Castro would continue to raise the concerns about U.S. policy that he spoke of during his remarks to the summit earlier in the day.
At that point, Castro smiled.
The two men rose again and shook hands as a press pool was ushered out of the meeting.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy National Security adviser, said the face-to-face seemed to be the most high-level encounter between American and Cuban leaders since Vice President Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro spoke in 1959.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas program at Human Rights Watch, said the U-turn in U.S. policy toward Cuba is already producing dividends.
“The credibility that the administration has gained by announcing this radical new diplomatic policy toward Cuba, without abandoning human rights… is extremely smart and puts the U.S. in a much better position,” he said.
But South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said that “President Obama's decision to meet with Raúl Castro does absolutely nothing to advance the cause of freedom and liberty in Cuba.”
The potential meeting between Castro and Obama had been the buzz of the second day of the Summit of the Americas. But remarks made first by Obama, then by Castro at the opening plenary sessions had leaders riveted, too.
“I pledge to construct a new era of cooperation between the countries,” Obama said at the plenary. “That President Raúl Castro and I are seated here is a historic moment for the continent.
“The Cold War has been over for a long time,” Obama said. “I’m not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born.”
During his presentation, Castro said that since he had been excluded from the past six summits, he would multiply his eight-minute speech by six.
He took his time — some 49 minutes — recounting the history of Cuba, the struggles of the Cuban Revolution and a century of perceived U.S. misdeeds toward the island, including propping up dictators, invasions and the economic embargo that was phased in during the early 1960s.
But Castro said he didn’t blame Obama or hold him responsible for the two countries’ toxic history or the actions of the 10 U.S. president who have occupied the White House since he and his brother Fidel came to power.
“Hostility has only brought more revolution,” he said, “and history proves it.”
Castro also said that Fidel Castro had received a letter from John F. Kennedy in 1963 suggesting that the two countries initiate talks, but just as the letter arrived, “Kennedy was assassinated that same moment — that same day,” he said.
The Cuban leader said that Obama’s “recent declaration that he would quickly decide” on whether Cuba would be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism was a “positive step.” But he said that Cuba never should have been on the list.
In the ongoing Obama-Castro show, the two men greeted each other and shook hands during the summit’s inaugural ceremony Friday night.
As Cuba and the United States work toward reestablishing diplomatic ties and reopening embassies after more than a half-century of isolation, Obama and Castro have had two phone conversations — the latest on Wednesday before they traveled to the Panama summit.
In another sign of warming relations, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodríguez met for three hours Thursday night — the first meeting between foreign ministers from the two countries since 1958.
“This is not just about two leaders sitting down together; it’s about fundamentally changing how the United States engages Cuba — its government, its people, its civil society,” said Rhodes, one of the architects of the new Cuba policy.
In welcoming leaders from all 35 countries of the hemisphere, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said: “We can solve the main problems that affect this continent with the motto of this summit: ‘Prosperity with Equality.’”
Theatrics by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro didn’t seem to detract much from the positive narrative the United States was trying to spin on its rapprochement with Cuba.
“For people who are actually interested in the real world of policy-making, I think [Obama’s speech] was incredibly effective — and that would be about 80 percent of the people in the room — although they tend not to be vociferous,” said Richard Feinberg, the former director of the National Security Council’s office of Inter-American Affairs in the Clinton administration.
Maduro, however, came out swinging Saturday, accusing the Obama administration of turning a blind eye toward coup plots emanating from Miami, New York and the U.S. embassy in Caracas.
As he took the microphone, the neighborhood around the convention center was filled with the sound of banging pots and pans, or a cacerolazo, that is a traditional Venezuelan protest.
Maduro said that U.S. sanctions levied against seven Venezuelan officials last month amounted to a threat hanging over the country and he asked Obama to find the “diplomatic or political” mechanism to repeal the executive order.
“I’ve brought more than 11 million signatures, which I will give to you through diplomatic channels, and I come in the name of 30 million people who are asking you, Obama, to repeal the decree that threatens Venezuela,” he said.
He also picked up on Obama’s comments that the U.S. administration is focused on the future rather than the United States’ past misdeeds in the region.
“This is not past history,” Maduro said of the executive order. “This is current history. I want a future also and a future with the United States.”
Maduro said Washington needed to make deep changes for cordial relations to resume, including dismantling what he called the “war machine” that’s housed at the U.S. embassy. He blamed the diplomats there for waging a “psychological, media and military” war that aimed to topple him.
“They’ve prepared coups to kill me,” he said of the embassy. “What should I do? Just turn a blind eye to it?”
The United States and Venezuela have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, but Maduro said he was actively trying to resume ties. He said his proposed ambassador to Washington had been awaiting recognition for 13 months and that he’s repeatedly tried to communicate with Obama through letters and diplomatic channels to no avail.
“I respect you but I don’t trust you President Obama,” said Maduro, who nevertheless said he wanted to believe that relations could be better between the two countries. “We want peace,” he said, “and we want to talk with the government of the United States.”
The 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, ended disastrously for Obama with rampant criticism of the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba, complaints on how the United States was waging its war on drugs, and even a prostitution scandal involving Secret Service agents.
After that, many countries said they wouldn’t go to another summit unless Cuba were included.
Obama said people can focus on past grievances and continue to use the United States as a convenient punching bag, but added, “That’s not going to bring progress.”
Feinberg said Obama’s speech suggested he had been listening to the complaints of three years ago.
One of those who had threatened to boycott the Panama gathering was Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. As he entered the convention center Saturday, he commented on the possibility that the United States might soon remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
“It’s like the poor man’s happiness. They steal his shirt; then he has to be happy when they give it back,” Correa said. That would be a “small step,” he said, adding that the United States needs to end the embargo against Cuba and shut down its base at Guantanamo.
Castro noted that Cubans had suffered “great damages” as a result of the embargo — Cuba calls it a “blockade” — and asked that regional leaders lend their support in trying to get it lifted.
In his remarks, Obama said that he had asked Congress to begin the work of removing the embargo.
While the Castro-Obama conversation was ground-breaking, leaders often leave the formal sessions of the summits to get face-to-face time with their hemispheric counterparts. Obama, for example, also met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who canceled a planned White House visit last year to protest U.S. spying on her and her country.
Obama said that Rousseff will now visit Washington June 30.
That flap had “left a lot of frustration” but it has largely been resolved due to the efforts of Vice President Joe Biden, said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Faced with mounting economic problems at home, Brazil’s voice may be more muted at this summit, said Sotero. But Rousseff did join other Latin American leaders on Saturday in rejecting the Venezuelan sanctions.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, meanwhile, said the new U.S.-Cuba relationship should be of benefit to the whole hemisphere. In his remarks at the plenary, Santos noted: “This summit brings together all the countries of the hemisphere without exceptions.”
Obama had a sidelines meeting with Santos Saturday, according to the White House.
Santos told the president that relations with the United States were at their “best level ever” and that Colombia is “proud to be your strategic partner.”
“I want to congratulate you again for you courage in taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba,” the Colombian president told Obama.
Obama congratulated Santos on trying to bring an end to long-standing violence through a peace process with leftist guerrillas and said that the United States’ recent appointment of Bernie Aronson as the U.S. special envoy to the Colombia Peace Process symbolized a shared hope for lasting peace in the Andean nation.
Santos told the Miami Herald in an interview on the eve of the summit that his goal for the meeting will be to push for the creation of a regional education system.
“ I am convinced that education is the best tool for transformation and social mobility and the fight against inequality and poverty; for this reason, we will promote it at the hemispheric level,” he said.