U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro spoke by telephone on Wednesday, their first contact since they announced in December plans to work toward restoring diplomatic ties strained for a half century.
The pair spoke before Obama left Washington for the Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama, and was the second time the two leaders talked by phone in the past four months.
“They were able to review the status of our efforts to complete the work of establishing those formal diplomatic relations” and discuss issues that would come up during the summit, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters Friday in Panama City. He said it wasn’t a lengthy conversation.
Obama and Castro may meet later Friday at the arrival ceremony at Panama City’s Atlapa Convention Center. They will have a second opportunity in the evening when the leaders pose for a ceremonial photo before a formal dinner, although Rhodes said he didn’t expect an “extended discussion” Friday, and suggested if such a meeting happened it would occur Saturday.
Panama President Juan Carlos Varela is hosting a formal dinner for the leaders in the capital city’s historic heart. It will be the first time Cuba takes part in a Summit of the Americas and the first time since Nelson Mandela’s 2013 memorial service in South Africa that the neighboring presidents will be in the same place.
Obama declined to answer a question about the call when he spoke to reporters after meeting with Varela.
“At the end of the last summit we said that there can’t be any more summits without Cuba,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on Thursday. “Today we have Cuba and it’s an important step to improve the environment and the dialog between North and South America, the U.S. and Latin America.”
The Obama-Castro phone call was reported earlier Friday by the Associated Press.
The Obama-Castro interaction will be closely watched as the two countries work to hammer out the details of their improving diplomatic relationship. They also spoke by phone in December after announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations. The guest list at Friday’s state dinner also features frequent U.S. critics including Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who lambasted the U.S. in front of Obama for 50 minutes at an earlier summit in 2009.
Maduro, speaking on Venezuelan state television Thursday following a meeting with U.S. State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon, said he will demand “respect” from the U.S., which he blames for destabilizing his country’s economy and falsely labeling a threat to U.S. national security. The U.S. has heightened sanctions on Venezuela, citing human rights abuses.
“I told Shannon yesterday that we want respect for Venezuela and I will repeat it at the Summit of the Americas. There will be no force that can shut us,” Maduro said. “I’m going to tell the truth and to demand respect for our homeland.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met in Panama City on Thursday night. The State Department characterized it as a “lengthy and very constructive” meeting without saying what details were discussed.
While the White House hasn’t said how Obama and Castro will interact, expectations are that they will do more than just repeat a handshake that marked their first encounter.
The U.S. and Cuba made their biggest move to improve ties, strained when Raul’s brother Fidel began nationalizing U.S. companies in the wake of his 1959 revolution, in a 45-minute phone call between Obama and Castro in December.
As part of the deal announced by the two leaders simultaneously, the Cuban government released Alan Gross, a humanitarian worker who was jailed for more than five years. Cuba also freed a U.S. intelligence asset who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years, as well as dozens of political prisoners, in exchange for jailed Cuban spies.
Since then, U.S. and Cuban negotiators have met three times in a bid to hammer an agreement for establishing a U.S. embassy in Havana and easing travel and commercial restrictions. A sticking point in those negotiations has been the continued inclusion of Cuba on the administration’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The State Department recommended this week that Obama remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, according to an aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The designation has meant Cuba is barred from exporting weapons and receiving certain economic aid. Those sanctions have complicated efforts by the regime to secure development loans from international institutions.
Obama said the efforts to normalize relations were “proceeding as I expected” and predicted “that we’ll be in a position to move forward on the opening of embassies in respective countries.”
“My expectation is, is that during the course of this year and into next year, you’ll see a series of steps and measures that are taken to build trust and to establish genuine dialog,” Obama said.
Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Cuban counterpart on Thursday evening, after Obama’s arrival in Panama.
Only 90 miles south of Florida, Cuba has long been a fixation of American politics. Beloved by Ernest Hemingway, it underwent a communist revolution, was the locus of perhaps the world’s closest brush with nuclear war and has remained the spiritual home of thousands of refugees who fled the Castro regime and who for decades drove U.S.-Cuban policy.
Any encounter between Obama and Castro is sure to draw criticism from leaders within the refugee community, as well as critics of the administration’s Cuba policy in Washington.
Senator Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American New Jersey Democrat who was the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until he was indicted on corruption charges earlier this month, issued a statement criticizing “unwarranted pressure from the White House to rush the State Department’s review process.”
“The Castro regime’s utter disregard for international security standards should not be rewarded with continued concessions from the United States, and any decision to remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism must have close scrutiny by the Congress,” Menendez said.