Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama met face-to-face in a historic summit in Panama City, Panama on Saturday. This marks the first time an American executive has physically met with a Cuban leader since 1959 when Raul’s brother, Fidel Castro, met with then Vice President, Richard Nixon. The liaison is occurring as part of the VII Summit of the Americas.
Castro said that although the former adversaries might still find differences in policies, they could have discussions tempered by patience. Secretary of State John Kerry also met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, for an extended period on Thursday evening to discuss continued normalization of relations between the two countries. Once the two countries extend embassy privileges to each other, it will be the first time that formal relations have existed between the two since the embargoes of the 1960’s were enacted.
Obama commented that the cold war has been over for some time and stated he was not interested in battles begun before his birth. Castro also intimated that a history of perceived U.S. misdeeds toward the island country, a mere 100 miles south of Key West, Florida, reflect the past. Castro said that he does not blame Obama for the actions of 10 presidents preceding him. Officials within the Obama administration say that this exchange is not just about the two leaders meeting at the summit, it is about a fundamental change in the manner that the U.S. engages Cuba.
One persistent issue of conflict is the long history of human rights violations perpetrated by the dictatorship of the Castros. Cuba still uses arbitrary detention and imprisonment to oppress dissension within the country. In 2013, human rights organizations received over 3,600 reports of incarceration and oppression; a marked increase from the previous year. Media outlets are completely controlled by the government so freedom of speech is severely squelched and muted at the risk of incarceration for insurrection. Embargoes were originally put in place after hundreds of Cubans were executed during Castro revolutionary activities. As recent as 2008, Cuba had the second highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world – second only to China. Any allegation of American misdeeds is completely overshadowed by the documented authoritarian oppression maintained by the Castro regime.
However, under the leadership of Raul Castro as his brother stepped aside, human rights assaults have diminished and there is progress being made. There is hope within the Obama administration that the opportunity to rejoin the hemisphere with normalized relations will compel the Cuban government to abandon the draconian oppression it has been characterized for in the past half-century. The blockade, as Castro refers to the sanctions, has crippled the Cuban economy and retarded progress dramatically. For example, the average monthly wage in the country is a mere $19.
Most of the leaders from the 35 countries attending the summit had positive things to say about Cuba’s attendance after being uninvited for the past six summits. There was criticism for U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials for human rights abuses. Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, proclaimed that isolationism is never an answer to peaceful relations in the hemisphere.
The seventh Summit of the Americas is shaping up to be a seminal opportunity for healing between two long-time adversaries. As Castro and Obama meet for another extended period during this historic summit, all involved hope that an enduring relationship can be forged for the healthy future of Cuba.
By Chris Marion