more than a half-century of official estrangement between the United
States and Cuba yesterday in a historic-face-to-face meeting that Obama
said put them on “a path towards the future”.
Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met on the sidelines of
the Summit of the Americas in Panama City – their nations’ first formal
meeting in more than half a century. Photo / AP
In a small room
with two chairs side by side, Castro smiled as Obama said they would
relay their concerns about each other’s policies but could disagree with
a spirit of respect.
“Over time, it is possible for us to turn
the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries,”
Obama said. He said their immediate task was to reopen embassies in
Havana and Washington.
After the two shook hands, Castro said he
agreed with everything Obama had said. “We are willing to discuss
everything, but we need to be patient, very patient,” Castro said before
reporters were ushered from the room.
“We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow.”
a later news conference, Obama said he was “optimistic that we’ll
continue to make progress, and that this can indeed be a turning point”.
meeting, on the sidelines of the 35-nation Summit of the Americas being
held in Panama City, lasted roughly an hour, and the two leaders did
not set a date for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations or the
reopening of embassies in their capitals.
In a sign of the
difficulty for the two nations in making basic, concrete progress
towards overcoming their longstanding enmity, Cuba’s Foreign Minister,
Bruno Rodriguez, said the two countries would meet again for talks “as
soon as possible”, but were still working to achieve the “appropriate
context” for formal ties.
The two leaders announced in December
that they would normalise relations and that they intended to
re-establish formal diplomatic ties. The opening of embassies in
Washington and Havana has awaited the US removal of Cuba from its list
of state sponsors of terrorism.
Obama, at his news conference,
said the recommendation to remove Cuba from the list, which Havana has
said must precede the opening of embassies, was now on his desk. “I’ve
been on the road,” he said. “I want to make sure I have a chance to read
it and study it before we announce it publicly.” White House officials
said the announcement would be made “in the coming days”.
concerns around the embassy are going to be mostly on the Cuban side,”
Obama said. “They haven’t dealt with an American Embassy in Cuba for
quite some time.”
US negotiators have said Cuba must give US
diplomats freedom to travel around the island, and allow Cuban citizens
free access to the embassy.
Calling his talk with Castro “candid
and fruitful”, Obama said, “I can tell you that in the conversations
I’ve had so far with him – two on the phone and most recently face to
face – we are able to speak honestly about our differences … we have
very different views on how society should be organised.” He added that
the US was “not going to stop talking about human rights, free
expression and freedom of the press”.
Cuban President Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama. Photo / AP
Obama’s welcome of Cuba ended a longstanding irritant with
Latin America, most of which mended fences with Cuba decades ago, and
added a potential legacy issue to his presidency alongside a nuclear
deal with Iran, assuming he is able to achieve it.
four-day swing through the region, which began on Thursday with a stop
in Jamaica, Obama has been upbeat and perhaps relieved to deal with
regional relations that, even including Cuba, are far less fraught than
the constant drumbeat of death and destruction in the Middle East, and
sparring with Russia over Ukraine.
While there are opponents to
his Cuba outreach in Congress, they are not nearly as numerous, or
dangerous, as those in both parties who have questioned aspects of his
Reflecting the other problems he faces, Obama
said: “Cuba is not a threat to the United States. It doesn’t mean we
don’t have differences, but on the list of threats that I’m concerned
about, I think it’s fair to say that between [Isis], Iran getting a
nuclear weapon, activities in Yemen and Libya … Russian aggression in
Ukraine … climate change, I could go down a pretty long list.”
Castro’s offer to discuss “any issue,” the Cuban leader also told Obama
his Government would not accept US efforts to “bring about changes in
the political and economic system in our country”, according to
Their meeting followed a dramatic speech to the
gathering in which Castro called Obama “an honest man … a humble man”,
who was not to blame for what he said was more than a century of US
oppression of Cuba and who was “courageously” trying to persuade
Congress to lift its embargo against his country.
nearly an hour, Castro first pounded the table and recounted the history
of what he called US oppression and abuse of Cuba, from early military
incursions and occupation to the Bay of Pigs invasion and what he
described as US-sponsored terrorist attacks on the island.
“I apologise to Obama for expressing myself so
emotionally,” Castro said. “President Obama has no responsibility for
this. There were 10 presidents before him; all have a debt to us, but
not President Obama … I have read his books – parts of them – and I
admire his life.” As he spoke, Obama sat without expression, his eyes
Cubans welcome historic meeting but are keen to see action soon
hailed yesterday’s historic meeting between Presidents Raul Castro and
Barack Obama but said they wanted to see ties warm faster between the
Cold War foes so that the lives of ordinary people on the island could
improve. Havana residents stopped in the middle of errands or
family time to watch Castro and Obama shaking hands and addressing the
press about their efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties.
fact that Raul and Obama sat down to talk in a civilised way after all
these years of such serious tensions seems historic to me,” said Roger
Rodriguez, a university professor.
Irene Quintana, a homemaker,
said she was cleaning house when her grandmother called her over to
watch the meeting on television.
“It seems magnificent to me, incredible. It excited me so much and I think that it’s hopeful,” she said.
Castro-Obama meeting was the most dramatic development since the two
Presidents’ announcement on December 17 that they would release captured
spies and restore full diplomatic relations as part of an effort to
broadly normalise relations between the two countries.
announcement was greeted inside Cuba by jubilation but emotions have
since cooled as the two countries have struggled to strike a deal on the
first landmark in normalisation – the re-establishment of full
embassies in Havana and Washington.
Many Cubans are eager to see
embassies and, as soon as possible, an opening of greater trade and
tourism from the US that will help Cuba’s stagnant economy and the daily
struggles of ordinary people, whose salaries of US$20 ($26.50) a month
on average make it tough to put food on the table.
“I like that
Raul left all the doors open. That seems important to me,” said Magaly
Delgado, a retired office worker. “We’ll see if it leads to results.”
Marie Argudin, a street performer, said: “It has been years that we’ve
been waiting for something like this. I hope this doesn’t just remain a