US, Cuba turn page from past towards future

2015-04-12 07:39
Cuban President Raul Castro listens as US President Barack Obama speaks during the opening plenary of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

Cuban President Raul Castro listens as US President Barack Obama speaks during the opening plenary of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

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Panama City - The Summit of the Americas closed on Saturday without an official declaration, but a statement by US President Barack Obama put the event in the history books from the start.

"The Cold War is over," he said after an unprecedented meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro on the sidelines of the summit.

The leaders of the West's last remaining Communist country and its capitalist superpower stood face to face, shaking hands more times before their meeting than they or their predecessors had in half a century.

For nearly an hour and a half, the two men had what Obama called a "candid and fruitful" discussion, seated side-by-side, in the same configuration used when the US president receives heads of state at the White House.

They pledged to open embassies and build bridges between their societies, despite deep divisions over human rights, political freedoms and policy.

Castro said he was open to discussing everything, with the caveat that "we need to be patient, very patient ... No one should entertain illusions."

Nevertheless, he said, the two sides had "agreed to disagree".

The meeting capped an extraordinary day in which Castro was welcomed warmly to the 35-nation summit at its morning plenary. He used the opportunity to deliver a fist-shaking indictment of a century of US interference in Cuba and Latin America.

He spoke for nearly an hour, far longer than the eight minutes allotted to each speaker at the summit's plenary session. He quipped that it was his due, after Cuba had been excluded from the six previous regional summits.

"They told me it could be an eight-minute speech," he said. "Since they owe me six summits, six times eight, 48."

But toward the end, he extended an olive branch to Obama, calling him an "honest man" and expressing respect for his humble origins. The room applauded.

The Seventh Summit of the Americas was meant to bring together the leaders of the western hemisphere to discuss topics like security, migration policy, climate change and development, under the rubric "Prosperity with Equity."

But the novel presence of Cuba - and the tempting target of US imperialism - shifted some of the focus to the region's history.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa goaded Obama with an indictment of the US's chequered interventionist past.

Obama had one answer, delivered to the assembly: "The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We're looking to the future."

The future, analysts say, is also one reason for Castro's new attitude.

Cuba has scraped by for years on Venezuelan aid, including surplus oil that Cuba re-sells at a profit. As Venezuela's economic and political crisis has emptied its pockets, Cuba needs to find new sources of foreign capital.

Part of that requires making new friends.

Ahead of the summit, Havna's foreign trade minister came to Panama to invite entrepreneurs to look for opportunities on the island, saying Cuba needs $2.5bn in foreign investment. On the day before he met Obama, Castro sat down in Panama with Thomas Donahue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce.

At the summit, his old friends were making sure the world did not forget about them.

Maduro arrived in Panama with a large box of what he said were 11 million signatures demanding Obama repeal an executive order increasing sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses. He said he was ready for dialogue with the US, too, but that his numerous messages had gone unanswered.

Earlier in the week, Bolivian President Evo Morales played football before spectators in indigenous costumes and feathered headdresses during the Summmit of the Peoples. But on Saturday he was all business, slamming the US for its "disrespectful" refusal to sign a proposed summit declaration condemning the executive order.

Beyond the pomp and posturing, clashes in Panama between Cubans attending the region's first civil society summit were a sobering reminder that normalization with the US is only the beginning of change in Cuba.

Pro-government activists brawled earlier in the week with dissidents outside Cuba's embassy. Shouting matches erupted outside Panama's Riu Hotel.

Finally, Castro supporters walked out of a forum where Obama was to meet with Cuban dissidents, saying they refused to share a roof with those they called mercenaries.

Read more on:    raul castro  |  barack obama  |  cuba  |  us  |  security

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