President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro sat down together in Panama City on April 11 in the first formal meeting of the two country’s leaders in a half-century, pledging to reach for the kind of peaceful relationship that has eluded their nations for generations.
“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 added the caveat that they had “agreed to disagee” at times. Castro said he had told the Americans that Cuba 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.”The flurry of diplomacy kicked off Wednesday when Obama and Castro spoke by phone – only the second known call between U.S. 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 the 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 U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Although earlier in the week Obama suggested a decision to remove 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 U.S. 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 U.S. would continue pressing Cuba on issues like democracy and human rights.
“We have very different views about how society should be organized,” Obama told reporters just before returning to Washington.
A successful detente would form a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. But it’s an endeavor he can’t undertake alone: Only Congress can fully lift the onerous U.S. sanctions regime on Cuba and there are deep pockets of opposition in the U.S. to taking that step.