Obama meets with Raúl Castro
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President Obama met with Cuban leader Raúl Castro on Saturday afternoon in what Obama called a “historic meeting.”
"We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future,” Obama told the Cuban leader at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, according to pool reports.
"Over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries."
He noted one of the first tasks the two countries will have to undertake is opening embassies in their respective capitals.
Through an interpreter, Castro said he agrees with Obama on all points. He said the two leaders can disagree while remaining respectful.
"We are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient, very patient,” Castro said. "We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow."
The two presidents noted the main hurdles to launching new embassies were practical concerns.
Obama said U.S. diplomats would need ease of access for their work in Cuba. He stated his hope ambassadors could move freely throughout the island’s borders.
“We would obviously need to have sufficient capability for diplomats to move around the country,” Obama said.
Castro, meanwhile, hoped a potential Cuban embassy in the U.S. could access American banks.
He also called on Obama to end the trade embargo on Cuba and remove his nation from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
President Obama told Castro he would make a decision on State’s designation in “the coming days.”
Officials present for the meeting described its atmosphere as “frank” and without tension. Both men had a “sense of the moment in the room,” they added.
Castro joked that both the U.S. and Cuban delegations had better listen to their leaders, and Obama laughed with him.
The leaders were seated next to each other in a setup similar to when dignitaries visit the Oval Office in the White House.
Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, Obama reiterated America’s commitment to freedom and human rights despite its improved rapport with Havana. All the same, he added the U.S. would not unduly pressure the Castro regime to step aside given how long it had held power.
“We’re not in the business of regime change,” he said of future dealings with Cuba’s government.
"We have a point of view and we won’t be shy about expressing it,” he added. “I’m confident the way to lift up the values we hold is through persuasion.”
Obama argued that merely communicating with Cuba again was a sea change in world politics.
“There is going to be evolution in Cuba regardless of what we do,” he said.
The long-awaited meeting was the most significant contact between leaders of the two nations in more than 50 years.
Earlier Saturday, Obama told the Summit that the fact he and Castro were willing to meet up “marks a historic occasion.”
“This shift in U.S. policy represents a turning point for our entire region,” he said.
The president indicated he saw no point in continuing frosty relations with Cuba.
“I’m not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born,” Obama said. “The Cold War’s been over for a long time.”
Also earlier Saturday, Castro gave Obama a “very emotional” apology.
“I apologize to President Obama and the others here,” he said. “I apologize to him because President Obama has no responsibility for this.”
“It was time for us to try something new,” Obama said of his fresh approach to Cuban relations.
The two leaders ended their dialogue by shaking hands. They had previously done so Friday evening, the first physical contact between Cuban and U.S. leaders in over five decades.
Such diplomatic gestures almost immediately provoked criticism from the GOP’s pool of possible 2016 presidential candidates Saturday.
“Obama meets with Castro but refused to meet w/ @Netanyahu,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted, citing Obama’s snub of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month.
“Why legitimize a cruel dictator of a repressive regime?” he added.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Rubio signals opposition to Biden Cabinet picks MORE (R-Fla.), whose parents are Cuban, also attacked the thaw. He said Obama’s overtures were absurd given the Castro regime’s long-term hostility to American interests.
“It’s ridiculous,” Rubio argued of the Obama administration’s shift in tone. “It doesn’t make sense.”
The State Department on Wednesday evening formally requested that Obama remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror. It completed a final review on the matter and turned it into the president’s hands Thursday.
Obama will soon decide whether Cuba deserves that status going forward. Revoking it would mark a major shift in U.S. goodwill towards the Caribbean nation.
Obama first announced his decision to normalize relations with Cuba last December. His administration officially detailed eased restrictions on trade and travel there on Jan. 15.
Cuba and the U.S. first clashed over the Cuban Revolution’s end in 1959. Communist rebels under Fidel Castro – Raúl's brother – overthrew the previous government and then allied with the Soviet Union.
The two nations would remain bitter rivals through the duration of the Cold War. Raúl became Cuba’s president after his brother stepped down from power in February 2008.
- Updated at 7:59 p.m.