by Stephanie Fontenoy – Guest columnist
There is no point in looking to the past when we have the future ahead. This was the message of US President Barack Obama, 53, to Cuban leader, Raul Castro, aged 83, when the two met in an exceptional face-to-face meeting, Saturday, April 11, on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama. The two heads of state have begun a new stage of historical reconciliation between the two countries, announced on 17 December.
“Over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries,”said the US president to his Cuban counterpart.
Raul Castro said he agreed with Mr Obama, and that he wanted a new beginning with the United States despite the two countries’ “long and complicated history.” He added that “we are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient — very patient.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel Castro in 2006, spoke face-to-face for an hour. According to the president of the United States, the discussion was sincere and fruitful, despite differences of views between the two countries.
“We have different views on how society should be organized,” said Mr. Obama, stating that the United States “was not going to stop talking about human rights and freedom of expression and the press with Cuba.”
In his first speech before more than thirty heads of state gathered for the Summit of the Americas, Raul Castro spoke for more than 45 minutes (he was allotted 8 minutes). He took the opportunity to denounce the repressive policies of the United States against the island nation for over half-a-century, but he said Mr. Obama was not included. Instead, Mr. Castro praised the “honesty” and “humility” of Barack Obama and applauded his “courageous” decision to ask the US Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba, in force since 1962.
“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,” stated Raul Castro.
The opening of an embassy in the respective capital cities is a priority in negotiations between Havana and Washington, subject to the removal of Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. Mr. Obama said that the file was on his desk and he would be making a statement on this in the coming days. On Tuesday, he recommended that the United States government reverse its long-standing policy designating Cuba as a state sponsor of international terrorism.
Despite a series of complaints against the United States by some Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia, the 7th Summit of the Americas took place largely against the backdrop of a relaxation of relations between the north and south American continent.
Regarding the US sanctions imposed on seven Venezuelan officials earlier this year, that country’s President Nicolas Maduro, although consistently critical of Washington, made a gesture toward the United States, calling for a “dialogue based on mutual respect.”
“President Obama is not George W. Bush,” he said. “I respect but I don’t trust you, President Obama.”
Against all odds, Mr. Obama and Mr. Maduro had a quick exchange of a few minutes in Panama City, another big first for the Summit.