Above: US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro
By the Caribbean Journal staff
This week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama was significant for a number of reasons — none more so than Cuba’s first-ever attendance of the event.
But a major event became historic when Cuban President Raul Castro met with his United States counterpart Barack Obama, the first time the two countries’ leaders had held a formal meeting in more than a half century.
The meeting came after Obama’s decision in December to begin to normalize ties with the US’ nearest Caribbean neighbour.
“This is obviously a historic meeting. The history between the United States and Cuba is obviously complicated, and over the years a lot of mistrust has developed,” Obama said ahead of the meeting. “But during the course of the last several months, there have been contacts between the US and the Cuban government. So I want to thank President Castro for the spirit of openness and courtesy that he has shown during our interactions. And I think if we can build on this spirit of mutual respect and candidness, that over time we will see not just a transformation in the relationship between our two countries, but a positive impact throughout the hemisphere and the world.”
Castro said Cuba was willing to discuss “every issue between the United States and Cuba,”including issues from human rights to freedom of the press.
“I think that everything can be on the table,” he said. “We could be persuaded of some things; of others, we might not be persuaded. It is true that we have many differences. Our countries have a long and complicated history, but we are willing to make progress in the way the President has described.”
Castro said the two countries would continue to advance the meetings already taking place in both Washington and Havana, and that “we shall open our embassies.”
“We shall visit each other, having exchanges, people to people,” he said. “And all that matters is what those neighbors can do; we are close neighbors, and there are many things that we can have.”
It was the first meeting between sitting US and Cuban leaders since US President Dwight Eisenhower and Fulgencio Batista in 1958.
Castro, who called Obama an “honest man,” had addressed the summit with a passionate speech earlier in the summit that did not ignore the history of the US-Cuba relationship.
“So we are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient — very patient. Some things we will agree on; others we will disagree,” Castro said. “The pace of life at the present moment in the world, it’s very fast. We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow. And we hope that our closest assistants — part of them are here with us today — we hope that they will follow the instructions of both Presidents.”
Following the talks, Obama described the meeting as “candid and fruitful,” citing what he saw as an ability to “speak honestly about our differences.”
Since January, the US and Cuba have been holding alternating meetings between officials in Washington and Havana; those talks are being led by US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, head of the directorate general for the United States in Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.