Turning the Page: Obama and Castro Meet in Panama

Obama meets Raul Castro

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State

Turning the Page: Obama and Castro Meet in Panama
| published April 12, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Generations of history were changed over the weekend when U.S. President Barack Obama met formally with acting Cuban President Raul Castro for the first of several steps toward normalized relations between the two countries.

Negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba have been ongoing for several months, but this weekend marked the first time in more than 50 years that the leaders of the two estranged nations met formally to end a state of hostility that has existed since the early years of the Cold War. Obama and Castro sat at a conference table and traded verbal laurels while outlining an optimistic look into the future.

Obama repeated what he has said numerous times over the past months: Cuba and the U.S. may not agree on everything, but the old template of isolation and quarantine has not worked to the benefit of either nation.

“And over time,” Obama said, “it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”

U.S. conservatives, anti-Castro groups, and some foreign policy experts are wary of the new thaw between the countries, but others suggest that in an increasingly complex and interconnected global economy, it is time to move forward with plans to normalize relations and open up economic activity and business development. Cuba has been mostly isolated and cut off since the fall of its pro-U.S. government in the late 1950s and its subsequent alignment with the Soviet Union and communism. After 1958, the United States made numerous attempts to destabilize Cuba, or to overthrow the government of dictator Fidel Castro—the charismatic Marxist-Leninist rebel who overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista when Dwight Eisenhower was U.S. President.

Despite being cut off from much of the world during those decades, Cuba retained the support and patronage of the Soviet Union, the communist superpower which propped up the Castro regime by providing economic aid and materials. Soviet support ended after the fall of communism, and Cuba has languished economically ever since. Part of the agreement to begin normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba includes the opening of trade and the relaxation of travel restrictions between the two nations. Cuba hopes to reinvigorate its tourism industry—once one of the most lucrative in the world in the 1940s and 50s.

Obama and Castro met in Panama, the same location where Eisenhower and Batista met for the last time in 1958.

During their press conference, Castro waxed vociferously about what he interprets as the harsh treatment Cuba endured during the Cold War era. But Castro also acknowledged that the past was the past, and that he had no antipathy toward Barack Obama.

“The Cold War has been over a long time,” Obama said in agreement, “and I’m not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was even born.”

The rapprochement is not without critics on both sides of the equation. In the United States, thousands of Cuban-Americans are opposed to normalization with the Castro regime, which some Cubans—especially of an older generation—say was then, and remains now, one of the most repressive and undemocratic in the world. Many human rights organizations rank Cuba as one of the worst in the world.

Many Republicans oppose both the terms and the speed of the normalization, which—they say—is a de facto recognition of a communist dictatorship, one unlikely to change simply because of an influx of tourism or a surge in trade. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, both Presidential candidates for 2016, have openly criticized the White House for the relaxation of relations between Cuba and the U.S. Neoconservatives and some foreign policy experts are also wary of Cuba’s removal officially from the list of nations responsible for state-supported terrorism.

Obama still faces the challenge of getting a Republican-controlled Congress to agree to any full normalization. Political watchers in Washington say that the real fight comes when the language of the détente is debated in the U.S. Senate.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Cuba Relations & Baseball: Just Let ‘Em Play; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; January 28, 2015.

Castro to U.S.: We Will Remain Marxist-Leninists; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 21, 2014.