Obama, Castro convene in historic US-Cuba meeting

By eliminating the US embargo on Cuba, Obama is pushing forward his foreign policy, thawing ties with regimes that, until now, have been perceived as a threat to the US.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro met on Saturday in the first formal meeting between leaders of those countries since 1958.

In a small conference room in a Panama City convention center, they  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 cautioned that they had “agreed to disagree” at times. Castro said he 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.”

Dwight Eisenhower was the last American leader before Obama to convene with a Cuban head of state when he met with Fulgencio Batista in 1958. Relations quickly entered into a deep freeze amid the Cold War, and the US spent decades trying either to isolate or to actively overthrow the Cuban government.

In a stroke of coincidence, Eisenhower’s meeting with Batista also took place in Panama, imbuing Saturday’s session between Obama and Castro with a sense of having come full circle.

At the start of their hour-long meeting, Obama acknowledged that Cuba, too, would continue raising concerns about US policies — earning a friendly smirk from Castro. Obama described the sit-down later as “candid and fruitful” and said that he and Castro were able to speak about their differences in a productive way.

Nevertheless, raw passions were on vivid display earlier in the day when Castro, in a meandering, nearly-hour-long speech to the Americas summit, ran through an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the US dating back more than a century. He said that many US presidents were at fault for that troubled history — but that Obama was not one of them.

Obama: No Interest in Rift with Cuba

“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 US began sanctioning the island nation. “I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”

Obama agreed. “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 US 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 their 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 US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Although earlier in the week Obama had suggested that removing 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 US 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 US would continue pressing Cuba on issues such as democracy and human rights.

“We have very different views about how society should be organized,” Obama told reporters just before returning to Washington.

Does Obama Prefer Castro to Netanyahu?

A successful detente would form a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. But it’s an endeavor he cannot undertake alone: Only Congress can fully lift the heavy US sanctions on Cuba, and there are strong opponents in the US to taking that step.

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush. (Gage Skidmore/wikicommons)

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.”

Not all US leaders were pleased with Obama’s move, and Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush criticized him for his choice of meetings.

“Obama meets with Castro but refused to meet w/ Netanyahu. Why legitimize a cruel dictator of a repressive regime?” Bush tweeted on Sunday, referring to Obama’s refusal to meet the Israeli leader when he was in Washington in March.

Obama also took the opportunity during a press conference with Castro on Saturday to continue his verbal attack against Netanyahu.

“The prime minister of Israel is deeply opposed to [the nuclear deal with Iran]. He’s made that very clear,” Obama said, saying that he had asked Netanyahu several times to present an alternative that would make it “less likely for Iran to get a nuclear weapon — I’ve yet to obtain a good answer on that.”

By: AP and World Israel News Staff