Latin America celebrates push by Obama, Castro to heal US-Cuba rift

Latin America celebrates push by Obama, Castro to heal US-Cuba rift

Latin America celebrates push by Obama, Castro to heal US-Cuba rift

US President Barack Obama (L) and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro shake hands as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (R) looks on in Panama City. Reuters photo

As Latin American leaders applaud a historic thawing of animosity between the United States and Cuba, U.S. President Barack Obama will meet Raul Castro for talks on April 11 that could further boost his reputation in the region. 

Obama and the Cuban president shook hands and spoke briefly at the opening ceremony of the Summit of the Americas on Friday night, a gesture that drew praise from other leaders who have in recent years called for changes in U.S. policy on Cuba. 

Even Venezuela's socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, toned down his usual anti-American rhetoric to hail the rapprochement as well as Cuba's attendance at the summit for the first time. 

"The fact that Cuba is here is the greatest achievement of Latin America and the Caribbean," said Maduro, who this week appeared to soften his stance toward Washington after a recent surge in tension. 

"When Raul sat in that chair, which belongs to Cuba, 60 years of revolution sat down. Fidel sat down," he added, referring to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who handed over power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. 

Obama, 53, who was not even born when the Castro brothers swept to power in a 1959 revolution, assured Latin American leaders that the United States was no longer interested in trying to impose its will on the region. 

Earlier on April 10, Obama met with opposition activists from across Latin America, including two Cubans, but there was very little media access to the session, curbing publicity of an encounter that could have annoyed Castro's communist government. 

Obama and Castro were not seated together at a dimly-lit, open air dinner amid ruins in Panama City's historic quarter on April 10 night and journalists briefly allowed in for toasts saw no interaction between the two men. 

But the overall tone has been upbeat as Obama and the 83-year-old Castro move toward restoring full diplomatic relations and improving trade and travel ties following a dramatic policy shift announced by both men in December. 

Obama seems close to removing Cuba from a U.S. list of countries that it says sponsor terrorism. Castro has insisted on it as a condition for restoring diplomatic ties. 

"Our Cuba policy, instead of isolating Cuba, was isolating the United States in our own backyard," Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said on April 10. 

Washington imposed trade sanctions on Cuba from 1960 and broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. The two countries then became fierce Cold War foes. 

But Obama has overhauled Cuba policy in the last four months, agreeing to an end to hostility and using executive powers to ease some trade and travel restrictions. 

Taking Cuba off the U.S. terrorism list would accelerate the detente, although it is not clear how soon Obama will announce it. 

Facing some domestic opposition to his policy, he says his government will continue to push Cuba for reforms, especially to improve human rights and political freedoms. 

"We'll have our differences government to government with Cuba on many issues, just as we differ at times with other nations within the Americas, just as we differ with our closest allies," Obama said on April 10. 

Castro insists he will be cautious in passing any reforms and that Cuba has no intention of ending Communist Party rule. 

Obama can continue to ease specific sanctions but the U.S. trade embargo against the island can only be overturned by the Republican-controlled Congress.