Obama Meets Cuba’s Castro With Much to Discuss on Detente

US President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro (L) on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro have much to discuss when they meet for the first time Saturday as they seek to end more than five decades of diplomatic estrangement.

The agenda for the encounter -- which Obama’s aides said will occur at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City -- has taken shape since the nations agreed in December to restore ties. Since then, officials have discussed issues such as human rights, the opening of embassies and the potential removal of Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

“Both leaders are likely to talk about the progress that has been made and that remains in the bilateral negotiations in areas such as communications, direct mail service, allowances for diplomatic staff to travel freely and human rights,” Chris Sabatini, the founder and former editor-in-chief of the policy analysis magazine Americas Quarterly, said in an e-mail.

The Obama-Castro interaction is being closely watched by leaders at the summit, as well as the international community. At the summit’s opening ceremony, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said he wanted to “commend the leadership” of the presidents in seeking to normalize ties.

The meeting opened Saturday with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos applauding Cuba’s attendance for the first time, while Ecuador President Rafael Correa said the U.S. should expand its outreach to Cuba by returning the Guantanamo Naval Base. He also spoke out against regional poverty, and said the hemisphere was dominated by “elites.”

Dinner Handshake

Castro, in a history-laden speech of more than 45 minutes, criticized the U.S. for past actions against Cuba, including the designation as a supporter of terrorism, while praising Obama for embracing the new policy.

“President Obama is an honest man,” Castro said in comments translated from Spanish. “I admire him and his life and I think that his behavior has a lot to do with his humble background.” Castro said he had read portions of Obama’s two memoirs.

Obama and Castro shook hands and exchanged brief remarks on Friday night before a formal dinner with the other leaders. A White House official, requesting anonymity to discuss a private conversation, said the leaders didn’t have a substantive policy discussion. While a meeting isn’t on Obama’s official agenda, Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said “we certainly do anticipate that they will have an opportunity to see each other” Saturday.

‘Move Forward’

“If we can continue to move forward and seize this momentum in pursuit of our mutual interests,” Obama said in a speech that preceded Castro’s, “then better relations between the United States and Cuba will create new opportunity for cooperation across our region.”

Removing Cuba’s designation as a backer of terrorism -- one of the biggest sticking points in the negotiations thus far -- may be brought up by Castro. The U.S. State Department completed the review ordered by Obama and forwarded it to the White House, where aides will provide a final recommendation, Rhodes said.

“We’re not all the way through that process,” Rhodes said.

The State Department recommended this 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.

Economy Hurt

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.

“Raul needs Cuba to be taken off the state sponsors of terrorism list,” said Sabatini, who teaches international affairs at New York’s Columbia University. “It’s a national humiliation and it has prevented Cuban diplomatic activities in the U.S. from being banked for over a year. That’s Obama’s carrot.”

Obama could try to extract concessions from Castro on human rights in exchange for delisting Cuba, he said.

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 civil society forum.

Republican Critics

Opponents of Obama’s new approach to Cuba cited the incident as evidence that the communist regime will continue to repress free speech even after restoring relations with the U.S.

“Cuban regime thugs beat up several Cuban dissident leaders and American citizens visiting Panama for the summit,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, 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 Governor Jeb Bush said that 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.

Rhodes said Obama won’t hesitate to raise objections to Cuba’s history of curbing free speech in his talk with Castro.

“We’ll continue to speak out in support of the ability of independent voices in Cuba to be heard, the ability of people to speak freely without fear of intimidation,” he said.

‘Nothing Wrong’

Obama, speaking Friday to civil society members in Panama, said the U.S. could address its objections to Cuba’s policies through dialog.

“As we move toward the process of normalization, we’ll have our differences, government to government, with Cuba on many issues,” Obama said Friday in a speech to civil society members gathered in Panama. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

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 will be allowed to be stationed in Havana and how freely they’ll be able to travel within the country.

Castro has also sided with Venezuela, Cuba’s ally, in a diplomatic spat with the U.S. over recent sanctions.

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