Barack Obama and Raul Castro to come face to face amid bid to restore ties

April 11, 2015 9:27 pm

As leaders from across the Western Hemisphere gather Friday in
Panama, all eyes will be on two presidents: Barack Obama and Raul
Castro, whose expected encounter at the Summit of the Americas will mark
a historic moment as the U.S. and seek to restore ties they
abandoned decades ago.
Americans and Cubans alike can recall just
how deep the animosity between their countries ran during the Cold War,
when even a casual, friendly exchange between their leaders would have
been unthinkable. So while Obama and Castro have no formal meetings
scheduled together, even a brief handshake or hallway greeting will be
scrutinized for signs of whether the two nations are really poised to
put their hostile pasts behind them.
Obama and Castro cross paths
at the Summit of the Americas in the throes of a delicate diplomatic
experiment: the renewal of formal relations between countries that
haven’t had any in more than 50 years.
Even their arrival
Thursday evening seemed steeped in symbolism: Obama, after arriving in
Panama City, was whisked via helicopter to his waiting motorcade at an
airport former known as Howard Air Force Base, from which the U.S. launched its 1989 invasion of Panama.
Castro’s plane landed on the tarmac minutes later, missing Obama only briefly – two world leaders passing warily in the night.
Four
months ago, Obama and Castro announced their intention to restore
diplomatic relations, beginning a painstaking process that has brought
to the surface difficult issues that have long fed in to the U.S.-Cuban
estrangement. Hopes of reopening embassies in Havana and Washington
before the summit failed to materialize. The U.S. is still pushing Cuba
to allow more freedom of movement for its diplomats, while Cuba wants
relief from a sanctions regime that only Congress can fully lift.
Yet
in the days before this year’s Summit of the Americas – the first to
include Cuba – both leaders sought to set a productive and optimistic
tone for their highly anticipated encounter. While in Jamaica on
Wednesday, Obama signaled that he will soon act to remove Cuba from the
U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, removing a stigma that has
been a source of friction for Havana.
Obama’s move could come within days.
“We
don’t want to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said Wednesday in
Kingston, Jamaica, before flying to Panama City. “When something doesn’t
work for 50 years, you don’t just keep on doing it. You try something
new.”
In another sign of engagement, U.S. Secretary of State John
Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met privately in
Panama on Thursday – the highest-level meeting between the two
governments in decades. The U.S. said the meeting was lengthy and that
the leaders agreed to keep working to address unresolved issues.
On
Friday, Obama was to meet with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela
and other Central American leaders. He planned to speak at a forum of
CEOs before joining other leaders for dinner at Panama Viejo, home to
archaeological ruins dating to the 1500s. A visit to the Panama Canal
was also possible.
In a nod to lingering U.S. concerns about
human rights and political freedoms, Obama was also attend a forum
bringing together both dissidents and members of the Cuban political
establishment.

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