Obama Greets Cuba’s Castro at Summit Ahead of Talks on Ties

Cuba's President Raul Castro (L, middle row) and US President Barack Obama (R, middle row) are pictured with other leaders during the opening ceremony of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention Center in Panama City on April 10, 2015.

Photograph: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met briefly in Panama, shaking hands and exchanging words in their first encounter since December when they started work on restoring diplomatic ties strained for a half century.

The pair, who spoke by phone two days ago, saw each other briefly Friday in Panama City as they joined other leaders at Atlapa Convention Center before a formal dinner to start the Summit of the Americas meeting. The two probably will spend more time together on Saturday, Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said earlier Friday.

“We certainly do anticipate that they will have an opportunity to see each other, tomorrow,” Rhodes told reporters in Panama City. “There’s a range of issues where we’ve been in dialogue with the Cubans. The two leaders will be able to address and take stock” of progress on negotiations.

The Obama-Castro interaction is being closely watched as the two nations hammer out details of their improving diplomatic relationship. The two men spoke by telephone on Wednesday, before Obama left Washington, to discuss the negotiations on normalizing relations and issues related to the summit, Rhodes said.

During remarks at the summit’s opening ceremony, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said he wanted to “commend the leadership” of Obama and Castro in working to normalize ties between their two countries.

‘New Chapter’

The guest list at the state dinner hosted by Panama President Juan Carlos Varela 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.

Obama left the dinner at the Spanish ruins of Panama Viejo before it was served. During the opening ceremony, he abstained from applauding when Moon and others praised progress with Cuba.

The event marks 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.

“As the United States begins a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, we hope it’ll create an environment that will improve the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama said Friday at a civil-society forum. “Not because it’s imposed by us, the United States, but through the talent and ingenuity and aspirations and the conversation among Cubans from all walks of life.”

Alan Gross

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.

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 person -- described by the U.S. as an American intelligence asset -- who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years, as well as dozens of political prisoners, in exchange for jailed Cuban spies.

Terrorism List

Since then, U.S. and Cuban negotiators have met three times in a bid to hammer out 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, 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 on Thursday that 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.”

Menendez Criticism

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.

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