Obama, Raúl Castro get ready for historic meeting

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President Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro are expected to meet sometime Friday or Saturday at this weekend’s Summit of the Americas, which for the first time ever will be attended by the leaders of both countries.

It's a historic moment the White House is embracing.

Obama briefly shook hands with Castro during former South African President Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. But their meeting at the summit in Panama is expected to be a much more significant encounter. 

Obama is seeking to normalize relations with Cuba after a decades-long trade, travel and diplomatic embargo.

If successful, the change would create a lasting diplomatic and foreign policy legacy for Obama, who came to office promising to use diplomacy to change the U.S.'s relationship with allies and enemies alike.

The summit is an important test for Obama’s policy of engagement with a longtime U.S. adversary. It’s also a chance to turn the page on a toxic relationship with Cuba that complicated the U.S.’s ability to advance its interests in Latin America.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama and Castro would not have a formal one-on-one meeting but would likely interact “at the summit events and as the leaders gather on the margins of those events.”

Though it may be brief, their conversation will be watched closely for signs the two leaders can get along. 

“The big symbolism that’s happening here is the U.S. and Cuba get beyond this decades-long standoff we’ve seen,” said Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

O’Neil added that the “ability for Obama and Castro to speak with each other and develop some kind of rapport is important when they hit sticking points.”

Obama has sought to open Cuba to U.S. travelers and businesses: Airbnb, the San Francisco-based home-rental company, announced last week that more than 1,000 Cuban homes were now open to foreign travelers looking to visit a country long isolated by the U.S.

Obama’s announcement appears to have caused a spike in foreign travel to the island. Visits to Cuba in January were up 16 percent compared to last year, according to The Associated Press. 

The White House at the same time is seeking to change relations with Iran, a second member along with Cuba of former President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” Obama is the first U.S. president to speak with his Iranian counterpart since President Carter, and he is seeking a nuclear deal with Tehran that is another legacy item.

Congress could be a barrier in both efforts.

Democrats and Republicans alike have criticized the proposed nuclear deal. On Cuba, there is also opposition in both parties to normalizing relations; though it is more muted, particularly on the Democratic side.

Obama is on the cusp of removing a major obstacle blocking the restoration of full diplomatic ties with Cuba: the country’s listing as a state sponsor of terror. 

The president announced Tuesday the State Department had completed its review of Cuba’s status, though he said no final decision has been made to remove the country from the list. An announcement is not expected to come before Obama travels to Panama. 

Obama on Thursday hinted that he will remove Cuba from the list. During a stop in Jamaica, he called the list a "powerful tool to isolate hose countries that genuinely do support terrorism."

"As circumstances change, then that list will change as well," he said.

If Cuba is removed from the list, as expected, it would pave the way to reopen embassies that have been shuttered since the 1960s.

“In terms of the overall process of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, I think that they are proceeding as I expected,” Obama said a stop in Jamaica on Thursday. “I never foresaw that immediately overnight everything would transform itself.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban-American critic of Obama’s diplomatic push, said Wednesday “any decision to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism must have close scrutiny by the Congress.”

“The Castro regime’s utter disregard for international security standards should not be rewarded with continued concessions from the United States,” he said in a statement. 

The president said both nations would be prepared to open embassies and take other “steps and measures to build trust” over the next two years. 

Reminders of the decades of tensions aren’t hard to find, and a confrontation on Wednesday between a group of Cuban dissidents attending the summit in Panama and a large group of supporters of Cuba’s government highlighted difficulties for the two countries. 

A well-known Cuban dissident was roughed up in the incident, which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said created a “sickening start to this summit.”

“It’s reflecting poorly on Panama, reminding us of the true nature of the Castro regime, and showing just how naive President Obama’s Cuba policy is,” said Rubio, a Cuban-American and potential 2016 presidential candidate.

But Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), who recently replaced Menendez as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called removing Cuba from the terror list "an important step forward in our efforts to forge a more fruitful relationship."

Obama has relaxed some restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba on his own, but lawmakers would have to vote to lift the U.S. embargo.

Administration officials say the U.S.'s isolation of Cuba has harmed relations with other regional powers including Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia on issues like trade and energy. 

“It made no sense that the United States consistently, essentially made the decision to isolate ourselves from the rest of the Americas because we were clinging to a policy that wasn’t working,” Rhodes told reporters this week. “We would anticipate that this does help begin to remove significant impediment to having a more constructive engagement in the hemisphere.”

— Updated at 6:46 p.m.