by Askia Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – President Barack Obama added another notch to his diplomatic achievements-belt April 11, meeting for more than an hour in Panama City with Cuban President Raúl Castro, the first meeting between leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years.
Mr. Obama’s historic trip began in Kingston, Jamaica where he met with that country’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and the leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), an organization made up of 15 Caribbean governments. The U.S. and its sole ally in the region have been isolated from most of the governments of the Western Hemisphere over the harsh U.S. sanctions against Cuba. This trip however seemed to right those past wrongs.
The atmospherics could not have been better for Mr. Obama. His weekend began with a visit and a wreath laying at Jamaica’s Bob Marley Museum. That visit, the president told Ms. Simpson-Miller, was “one of the more fun meetings I have had.” She told Mr. Obama, “You’re very loved in this country,” and she expressed her “gratitude” for American support.
The United States is Jamaica’s leading trade partner, main tourism market and chief source of foreign direct investment, she said. She also cheered Mr. Obama’s push to normalize relations with Cuba, saying to him, “You are on the right side of history,” according to White House reporters traveling with the president.
“What we want to do is find out how we can be an even more constructive partner” with Jamaica, the president said. He mentioned climate change, trade, security cooperation.
What Ms. Simpson-Miller did not discuss while reporters were present were calls from authors such as Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who wrote that the U.S. should “put an end to extreme austerity in Jamaica.”
The next day at the meeting of the seventh convening of the Summit of the Americas, Mr. Obama told the leaders from Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Uruguay: “I am proud to be with you at this first-ever official gathering of civil society leaders at the Summit of the Americas. And I’m pleased to have Cuba represented with us at this summit for the very first time.”
Mr. Obama emphasized his view that there is a “strong common agenda” among Western Hemisphere countries and stressed that what was good for the region is good for the United States, “not just because of proximity” but because of the “incredible bonds” between our peoples. “It is up to us to make sure the United States stands in solidarity and partnership with the countries around this table,” Mr. Obama said.
He noted criminal elements and narco-trafficking “thrives when people feel they have no other pathway to success.” Since he took office in 2009, Mr. Obama said that exports from the U.S. to Latin America and imports from Latin America to the U.S. are up 50 percent. That is “an indication not only of the recovery that was initiated by important policies that were taken, but the continuing integration that’s going to continue to be taking place in this hemisphere.”
There are four key areas on which success is to be built, Mr. Obama told the leaders: Education and worker training; Infrastructure; Broad-based economic development; and Governance. The highlight of Mr. Obama’s trip, however, was his hour-long meeting with Cuban President Castro. “This is obviously an historic meeting,” Mr. Obama said while reporters were present. The history between the United States and Cuba is complicated, he said. After 50 years of policy that had not worked “it was time for us to try something new.”
“We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future.” He said the majority of Americans and Cubans have responded positively to the policy change. Obviously there are going to be deep and significant differences between the U.S. and Cuba remaining, he continued. “Over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said.
The immediate tasks: opening embassies in Washington and Havana. After Mr. Obama spoke, he and Mr. Castro stood and shook hands. Then Mr. Castro spoke, and after his remarks, the men stood again and shook hands.
Mr. Castro spoke Spanish. His remarks as translated through his interpreter: He said he agreed with everything Mr. Obama said. He said they can have differences “with respect of the ideas of the others. We are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient, very patient.
“We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow,” Mr. Castro said according to reporters present. He criticized past U.S. policies, but singled out Mr. Obama from previous U.S. presidents who enforced the embargo. He even admitted he has begun reading Mr. Obama’s autobiography.
A senior administration official later briefed the U.S. press pool saying, “The two presidents discussed the ongoing embassies in Havana and Washington.” The presidents committed to opening the embassies and directed their respective teams to resolve the lingering issues as quickly as possible so the embassies can open, the official said.
The two leaders discussed the completion of the State Department review of Cuba’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism, and Mr. Obama informed Mr. Castro that the next step, the interagency review, is near or is completed and that Mr. Obama would be making a decision in the “coming days.”
Mr. Castro did not extend an invitation to Mr. Obama to visit Havana during their talks.
They did express a real commitment to do something different and chart a new course. Mr. Castro spoke of that in the meeting. “There was a sense of the moment in the room,” the senior administration official said. “There wasn’t tension.”
The U.S. had other reasons for wanting to deflect attention away from past hostilities with Cuba, according to Miguel Rinker Salas. “Well, a list that the U.S. created, and the U.S. put Cuba on it. I think it’s really a political fig leaf on the part of Obama,” Mr. Salas told “Democracy Now!”
“He wants to be able to hide behind something, come to the summit, deliver something. The reality is that the U.S., for—Cuba, for the U.S., really became an impediment. It creates its isolation in the region. The U.S. has other interests in the region.
“They would really like to have a discussion about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They would like to have an alliance about the free trade for the Americas. They would like to promote what are really their economic interests, so that the issue of Cuba is really a vestige of the past. It is part of a Cold War legacy. It has both national implications in the U.S., but it has, more importantly, international implications.
“The U.S. is isolated on Cuba in the UN. Only two countries vote for its support of an embargo. It’s isolated in Latin America. It’s isolated in Europe, Africa, Asia. So, really, the Cuba issue has become really an impediment, a block for the U.S. in the region,” said Mr. Salas, who is professor of Latin American history at Pomona College. His new book is called Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.