U.S., Cuban leaders warn progress slow

They say all issues on table, but disagreements will arise

For Cuban President Raul Castro (left) and President Barack Obama, Saturday’s encounter at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City was an opportunity to make progress on normalizing relations.
For Cuban President Raul Castro (left) and President Barack Obama, Saturday’s encounter at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City was an opportunity to make progress on normalizing relations.

PANAMA CITY -- Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro met in the first such encounter between the U.S. and Cuba in more than 50 years and pledged to move ahead with normalizing relations while cautioning that change may come slowly.



Leaders attending the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, pose for a photo Saturday. Pictured from left are: (front row) Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez, Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie; (middle row), El Salvador’s President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, U.S. President Barack Obama, Grenada’s Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina; (back row), Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Uruguay’s President Tabare Vazquez and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

"We will continue to try to lift up our concerns about democracy and human rights," Obama said Saturday while sitting next to Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. "We can disagree with a spirit of respect and civility, and over time it is possible for us to turn the page." Castro said he is willing to "discuss everything."

The most extensive interaction between presidents of the U.S. and Cuba in five decades, which a White House aide said lasted about an hour, has been closely watched by leaders at the summit, as well as by the international community. At the summit's opening ceremony, where Obama and Castro shook hands, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he wanted to "commend the leadership" of the presidents in seeking to normalize ties.

"We are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient," Castro said through a translator. "We could be persuaded of some things; of others we might not be persuaded.

"But when I say that I agreed with everything the president just said, I include that we agree to disagree."

Their comments at the meeting echoed statements they made earlier in the day during speeches at the gathering of 35 nations. The region's leaders praised the step of improving ties between the two nations but attacked new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.

Speaking at his first Summit of the Americas since they began in 1994, Castro on Saturday called Obama an "honest man" and joked that, as Cuba's leader, Castro should get to speak six times longer than anyone else since the nation has been blocked from that many gatherings.

In a lengthy speech, Castro ran through a history of Cuban grievances against the U.S. dating back more than a century, including its support for Fulgencio Batista, the Bay of Pigs invasion and its opening of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Then, in an abrupt about-face, he apologized for letting his emotions get the best of him. He said many U.S. presidents were at fault for that troubled history -- but that Obama isn't one of them.

Obama, saying he wasn't interested in fighting battles that started "before I was born," urged the assembled leaders to get past ideological differences and focus on the future.

"The fact that President Castro and I are both sitting here today marks a historic occasion," Obama said. "If we can continue to move forward and seize this momentum in pursuit of our mutual interests, then better relations between the United States and Cuba will create new opportunity for cooperation across our region."

Obama and Castro met privately with aides and made progress on opening embassies in both nations, although logistical obstacles remain, such as letting the Cuban delegation bank in the U.S., according to a senior administration official at the meeting.

The two men talked about the U.S. designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, although the discussion wasn't lengthy, said the aide who requested anonymity to describe the meeting. The meeting didn't include a lot of demands, he said.

At a news conference wrapping up the summit, Obama said he was not yet ready to announce a final decision.

But he said the conversation with Castro had been "candid and fruitful."

The aide said Obama will make a decision on the terrorism designation in the near future, then he will notify Congress, which would have 45 days to respond.

The State Department recommended last week that Obama take Cuba off the list, according to an aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Iran, Sudan and Syria also are on the list.

Representatives of Castro's government have said the designation has hurt Cuba's economy and stands in the way of restoring diplomatic relations. The designation bars the country, just 90 miles away from Florida, from access to banks in the U.S.

Not since 1958 have the leaders of the U.S. and Cuba convened a substantial meeting; at the time, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and Batista was in charge in Cuba. But relations quickly entered into a deep freeze amid the Cold War, and the U.S. spent decades trying to either isolate or actively overthrow the Cuban government.

Eisenhower's meeting with Batista in 1958 also took place in Panama.

Resetting relations

The Summit of the Americas has offered the U.S. the chance to recast its relationship with Latin America, where even close allies have been frustrated by the more than five-decade embargo against Cuba.

"Our Cuba policy, instead of isolating Cuba, was isolating the United States in our own backyard," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "This time, we arrived here, yes, certainly not agreeing with everybody on everything," he said, but with "broad agreement with the leaders here that what the president did was the right thing."

Obama's overtures to Cuba and his recent executive action on immigration, to make it easier for some people who are in the United States without authorization to stay legally, were praised.

"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," President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama said just before a meeting with Obama at the summit.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, who demanded Cuba's inclusion in this year's meeting as he closed the last one, in his country in 2012, also celebrated Cuba's arrival.

U.S. officials went to the summit seeking momentum for initiatives to boost economic cooperation, counter drug trafficking and promote alternative-energy programs.

But U.S. sanctions last month against some Venezuelan officials, in which the South American country was called a threat to national security, caught much of the region by surprise and were criticized or ridiculed by leaders including Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez.

"The first thing I did was laugh," Fernandez said. "How can it be that the largest power in the world considers the Republic of Venezuela a threat?"

Obama expanded U.S. sanctions March 10 to people responsible for eroding human rights, persecuting political opponents, curtailing press freedoms and using violence or arrest against protesters in Venezuela.

Obama met privately with his Venezuelan counterpart Saturday.

The meeting between Obama and President Nicolas Maduro took place on the sidelines of the summit and lasted only a few minutes, according to a White House official who wasn't authorized to comment by name.

"President Obama indicated our strong support for a peaceful dialogue between the parties within Venezuela," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. "He reiterated that our interest is not in threatening Venezuela, but in supporting democracy, stability and prosperity in Venezuela and the region."

Maduro later described the meeting as frank and cordial, saying the 10-minute exchange could lead the way to a meaningful dialogue between the two nations.

"I told him we're not an enemy of the United States," Maduro said. "We told each other the truth."

Saturday evening, Panama announced that Peru was selected as the seat of the next Summit of the Americas, in 2018.

On Friday, Obama met with Cuban dissidents at a civil society forum, and Saturday, he said the U.S. would continue pressing Cuba on human rights even as he called for Congress to lift the economic embargo.

The island nation's human-rights record came under scrutiny in Panama on Thursday, after Cuban dissidents were roughed up by Castro supporters at the forum.

Castro said he had told the Americans that Cuba was willing to discuss issues such as human rights, maintaining that "everything can be on the table."

Opponents of Obama's new approach to Cuba cited the attack on the dissidents as evidence that the communist regime will continue to repress free speech.

"Cuban regime thugs beat up several Cuban dissident leaders and American citizens visiting Panama for the summit," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Thursday in a statement. "Cuba has done nothing to earn the legitimacy President Obama continues to bestow on the regime."

In a Twitter post, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Obama is meeting with Castro after he refused to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington last month.

"Why legitimize a cruel dictator of a repressive regime?" said Bush, who, like Rubio, is considering a presidential bid.

Several sticking points remain as the governments work to set up embassies and fully restore diplomatic relations. Castro has called for the U.S. to return the military base at Guantanamo and end the half-century trade embargo against Cuba, which was imposed by Congress and must be rescinded by lawmakers. The two countries are also at odds over how many embassy staff members will be allowed to be stationed in Havana and how freely they'll be able to travel within the country.

Meanwhile, Uruguay's president said the U.N. refugee agency will help six former Guantanamo prisoners obtain housing in his country.

President Tabare Vazquez said at the summit that each of the six will soon have a home.

The six freed prisoners have struggled to adapt to life in Uruguay since arriving in December after years of captivity at Guantanamo. They have not gotten work and are getting by on about $600 a month provided by a nongovernmental organization.

Information for this article was contributed by Angela Greiling Keane, Raymond Colitt, Michael McDonald and Toluse Olorunnipa of Bloomberg News; by Jim Kuhnhenn, Josh Lederman, Nedra Pickler, Darlene Superville, Nancy Benac, Joshua Goodman and staff members of The Associated Press; and by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Randal C. Archibold of The New York Times.

A Section on 04/12/2015

Upcoming Events