Obama-Castro meeting dampens anti-US sentiment

AS usual when Latin America’s leftist leaders get together with United States officials, there were plenty of swipes at the US during the seventh Summit of the Americas.

President Barack Obama greets Cubas President Raul Castro at this weekends  historic Summit of the Americas in Panama City. Picture: AFP/Getty
President Barack Obama greets Cubas President Raul Castro at this weekends historic Summit of the Americas in Panama City. Picture: AFP/Getty

From 19th century territorial raids on Mexico to US support for the overthrow of Chile’s socialist government in 1973 and 1989’s invasion of Panama that removed General Manuel Noriega, Washington’s interventions in Latin America were targets of rebuke during long speeches by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his allies.

The needling prompted President Barack Obama to retort, “I always enjoy the history lessons that I receive when I’m here.”

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But the historic meeting ­between Mr Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday before the summit closed provides the US and Latin America with an opportunity to move beyond a history of grievances and mistrust and set a course of closer cooperation.

There were concerns in the run-up that recent US sanctions on Venezuelan officials could undermine the goodwill generated by Mr Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, but they proved unfounded.

The conciliatory tone was set by Mr Castro, who joked that since Cuba had been barred from the previous summits he was entitled to speak well beyond the eight minutes allotted to each of the 30-plus heads of state in attendance.

“Since you owe me six summits when you excluded me, six times eight is 48,” he said to laughter.

While much of Mr Castro’s meandering remarks consisted of condemnation of US aggression, the high point came when the aging Cuban leader, in an abrupt about-face, professed admiration for Mr Obama, saying he had read his two memoirs and was convinced that he was an “honest man” who had not forgotten his humble roots.

“I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution,” Mr Castro said, noting that Mr Obama was not even born when the US ­imposed sanctions on the ­communist island.

“I apologise to him because President Obama had no ­responsibility for this.”

The two leaders later sat down for the first meeting between Cuban and American heads of state since before the 1959 revolution that deposed Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista.

Even Mr Maduro eased up, forgoing a threat to deliver a ­petition signed by 10 million Venezuelans calling on Mr Obama to repeal the sanctions. Instead, as what he called the “Summit of the Truth” was closing, he also briefly spoke with Mr Obama in a private exchange that Mr Maduro said could open the door to meaningful dialogue between the two nations.

The White House said Mr Obama reiterated his concern about the state of democracy in deeply divided Venezuela, but in his public speech Mr Obama refrained from language declaring the situation in Venezuela a national security threat.

Richard Feinberg, a former White House official who helped organise the first Summit of Americas in Miami in 1994, said the prospect of a US-Cuba detente has taken much of the wind out of the sails of the region’s harshest critics of the US.