The thaw in the lengthy diplomatic freeze between the United States and Cuba appeared to be speeding up Friday, with President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro set for a face-to-face meeting on Saturday.
The two leaders already have talked by phone, a senior White House official said, disclosing a previously unannounced conversation that took place earlier this week.
In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Cuban counterpart held a lengthy meeting late Thursday night that was billed as the highest-level meeting between U.S. and Cuban officials in nearly six decades – a distinction it will lose when Obama and Castro hold their one-on-one discussion “on the margins” of the Summit of the Americas, a two-day gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders.
Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, described the ratcheting up of contacts between senior U.S. and Cuban officials as “unimaginable a year ago.”
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“We’ve already had the first interaction, the first meeting, between our foreign ministers since 1958. That happened last night. We’ve had the first phone calls between the president of the United States and the president of Cuba that I’m aware of since a similar time frame,” Rhodes said.
“We’re in new territory here.”
Rhodes said Kerry and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, discussed “very practical, specific and sometimes technical issues” related to restoring embassies in their respective countries.
Asked if Washington wants the government of Cuba, ruled by either Fidel Castro or his brother Raul since 1959, to be toppled, Rhodes dismissed the suggestion.
“We’re not focused on overthrowing the Cuban government. We’re not focused on changing the existing regime at a time when we’re engaging that government,” he said.
The phone conversation between Obama and Raul Castro on Wednesday was not particularly long, Rhodes said, while Kerry’s contact with his counterpart was broader and deeper.
The United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961 following the Cuban Revolution, which sent hundreds of thousands of Cubans into exile, setting off a tense relationship that has become a major factor in both U.S. domestic politics and international tensions. Cuban-Americans are an influential voting bloc in battle-state Florida, and the U.S.-Cuba rivalry has had repercussions for decades, from the Western Hemisphere to Africa.
It wasn’t clear if Obama and Castro would greet each other later Friday when the heads of state gather for a photo in the capital’s walled Old City, then head to a group dinner.
Vestiges of the strained relationship were on display in the early afternoon as Cuban dissidents and their supporters clashed with backers of the Castro government outside a Panama City hotel in a second day of violence.
Protesters pushed, shoved and shouted at one another outside the Hotel Panama, a luxury hotel in the city’s banking district where a forum was being held to bring together civil society leaders from across the Americas. Many waved Cuban flags. Panama’s main television network called for police to restore order.
Cuba was not the only source of tension. Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro arrived in Panama in the afternoon and headed directly to the working-class neighborhood of El Chorrillo, where he laid a wreath at a monument in honor of Panamanians who died resisting the 1989 U.S. invasion that toppled then-dictator Manuel Noriega. Bombing during the invasion heavily damaged high-rises in El Chorrillo.
Hundreds of supporters greeted Maduro, waving Venezuelan flags and holding up banners that read, “Obama repeal the decree” and “Venezuela is hope.”
The banners referred to a March 9 executive order the White House issued that declared Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security. U.S. officials later said the order contained “pro forma” language mandated to allow it to sanction seven Venezuelan officials or ex-officials, but that Washington had no intention of seeking Maduro’s ouster.
Touring the canal
At midmorning, with temperatures already soaring to the high 80s, Obama toured the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, itself a reminder of the United States’ long, sometimes acrimonious relationship with Latin America. Wearing sunglasses, Obama climbed the control tower that oversees movement of vessels, then walked along a narrow pedestrian walkway that traverses the locks chambers.
Secret Service agents were aboard vessels nearby as Obama crossed the canal.
Later, Obama said he “saw the extraordinary progress that is being made” on a $5.2 billion project to expand the canal, scheduled to conclude early next year.
“It really is a symbol of human ingenuity but also Panama’s central role in bridging two continents and bringing the hemisphere together,” Obama said.
Panama held out hope that the summit, which concludes late Saturday afternoon, would not only showcase the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States but help mend tense U.S. relations with Venezuela.
“Where there are differences, let us create bridges,” said Martin Torrijos, a leftist former president of Panama.
Torrijos recalled Panama’s history as a facilitator of peace talks in the 1980s aimed at ending wars in Central America and said, “I hope this can repeat itself.”