The meeting between US President Barak Obama and the Cuban leader Raul Castro, held in Panama during the Summit of the Americas, was the first formal talks between the two countries in more than fifty years.
Cuba was participating at the summit for the first time, a move welcomed by all Latin American countries and judged a signal of the clear intentions to pursue the road of reconciliation.
Both leaders confirmed their intentions to reopen a channel for discussion and at the same time confirming the limits of it. President Obama described the meeting as candid and fruitful confirming that the two countries will obviously have differences and mutual interests, with the right of disagree. Cuban leader Raul Castro also repeated the same line quoting that “we are disposed to talk about everything, with patience. Some things we will agree with, and others we won’t”. He also defended the Cuban revolution and its political system but at the same time he described President Obama as an honest man who is not responsible for the past wrong doings.
The meeting, however, was not an official talk to take decisive steps towards the normalisation, and instead was for many the official declaration of intentions and a formal reintroduction of Cuba into the Summit of the Americas.
The fact that the road is going to be long and full of obstacles in not a heresy and on both parts there are suspicions and dangers ahead.
Still Ahead Between Cuban Justified Diffidence and US Certified Ambiguity
Cuba is open to a dialogue to restore full diplomatic relations and move away from hostility but is not ready to discuss any political change in the structure of power. For Cuba the immediate necessity is the end the embargo that is strangling the island and its people, a remnant of the Cold War which is not only outdated but inhumane and hypocrite.
Cuba’s cautious overture is also based on the fact that it still sees the US as a danger to its stability and independence, a common view shared with other Latin American countries. Cuba’s declaration of openness to discuss everything but with the right of disagree is a clear message that every meeting should be on the same level and that Havana will not accept diktats or attempts to limit its independence. This position has been especially reinforced by the Lider Maximo Fidel Castro who, breaking silence lasting months, expressed diffidence towards the US, declaring that he does not trust them. Nevertheless, he also supported his brother’s policy and the necessity to open a dialogue with the Washington.
Therefore for Cuba the positive conclusion of this process will rely especially on US shoulders and their willingness to lift the embargo, clear Cuba from the states sponsoring terrorism, the acceptance of Cuba’s political system.
On the other side the US are on the verge of an historical move, but it also expect from Cuba some concessions such addressing political structure, how to liberalise opposition to the government, cooperation in human rights investigations. For the first time in decades there is a clear sign in the US that the embargo may see its last days, as it cuts across the political spectrum although with different views and perspectives. Nevertheless, it is also true that US politics towards Latin America have not been all roses and ribbons, and Fidel Castro’s views are not unrealistic and found support across the continent. This is especially true when we take into account the relations with some of the governments in the region. From the reluctant acceptance of moderate leftist governments in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile, to the sometimes hostile approach to Peronist Argentina, to the open opposition to the socialist-radical block that put relations with Washington on a red line.
Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador on several occasions accused the US of political interference and neo-colonial approach even with assassinations attempts, whilst ties between Venezuela and Washington remain fractious since the successful Bolivarian revolution of former president Hugo Chavez. Especially the relations with Socialist Venezuela and President Nicolas Maduro for many analysts resemble the old US tactic of political interference for a change of regime. The US imposed sanctions last month on a group of Venezuelan officials it accuses of human rights abuses. President Obama also issued an executive order declaring Venezuela a threat to US national security that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has described as “disproportionate”.
The summit also highlighted differences between President Rafael Correa of Ecuador and the US. The Ecuadorian president said the US had failed to live up to its ideals by declaring: “Let’s talk about human rights. In Ecuador we don’t have torture, the death penalty or extrajudicial renditions”. In response, President Obama said the US does not claim to be perfect and to be open for change.
However, and it may sound a paradox, it is not only the above international dimension or the US incoherent approach to Latin America that can harm this process, it is also the uncertainty surrounding next year US presidential elections that could postpone or even block the dialogue altogether.
Make it or Brake it: How US Elections Could Affect the Dialogue
Unlike Cuba, where the one party system will not create surprises at the leadership, in the US the next year presidential elections will see the end of Obama’s administration and a new chapter opening. The Democrats will have in Hillary Clinton their main candidate, but even her victory will not automatically pave the way for an acceleration of the process which will depend on how the Congress will shape and whether Democrats will regain the majority. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton is the best chance for Cuba to continue the dialogue as she has been behind the thaw and long ago she advanced the necessity to end the embargo. Whether is a necessarily economic move, a change of regime in disguise or simply an electoral move to obtain the so called “Latino votes”, Obama’s thaw surely scored the first strike by dividing the Republican field and giving to Hillary Clinton an important gift. This is not anymore a monolithic block when discussing the Cuban issue and it may surprise that the two candidates Mr Rubio and Jeb Bush, by supporting hardliners, may find themselves reaching for full votes in Florida but losing the moderate and immigrants votes elsewhere. Inside the Republican Party there will be a struggle on how to balance carefully the choices and where to put its weight, especially after Obama attacked Israeli PM Netanyahu’s policy and the Jewish community vote is now more important than ever. By backing the status quo, that some republicans see as an outdated and counterproductive policy both economically and diplomatically, they may end up losing more than accepting a change which will open a wider support across the continent. The fact that many republicans are not concerned by Cuba is backed by rhetoric with which they attack Obama’s policy on the Iranian nuclear programme, its relations with Israel and especially what they consider a softer approach to Russia.
While a Republican victory is still considered for Cuba the worst case scenario, at the same time we will should probably not hurry in conclusions and not forget that history has many times put the historic changes in the unlikely hands of those “gifted with stubbornness” and Republicans may be on the verge of something similar.
President Obama will have a hard job ahead for the last year of his presidency to try and push further the dialogue and end the embargo which will be the start of an irreversible process. However, for President Obama, more than Cuba’s reluctance to open political dialogue or Fidel Castro’s heavy shadow, the main battle is at home, where the contenders for the presidency, and the factions inside the parties, will use this opportunity for increase or blow up their chances of becoming the first US president to visit Havana since the revolution.