Barack Obama and Raul Castro shook hands last night in an historic manifestation of thawing animosity between the US and Cuba after more than 50 years.
The two presidents met at the Summit of the Americas. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Latin American leaders looked on and praised efforts made to improve relations between the two nations after decades of sanctions on Cuba and isolation.
Obama and Castro will meet again today to talk about renewing diplomatic ties after they were severed 54 years ago after the 1959 revolution led by the Cuban leader and his brother Fidel.
The US president assured leaders that his country is no longer interested in trying to impose its will on Cuba. It is hoped that trade, leisure and travel ties between the two countries can be improved to restore full diplomatic relations.
However, the US trade embargo against the island can only be revoked by the Republican-controlled Congress and fears have been expressed that rampant capitalism will wreak havoc on the strong Cuban cultural identity.
“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 yesterday.
Private business restrictions have already been relaxed on the island with small enterprises being opened by Cubans in their homes and garages, such as restaurants and internet cafes.
Also, Obama appears to be close to removing Cuba from a list of countries that it says sponsors terrorism. Castro has insisted on it as a condition for restoring diplomatic ties, but it is not known when this will be implemented.
In January, Fidel demanded that the US hand back control of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba. Washington refused.
In the face of domestic opposition to improving relations, Obama said that the deal is not one-sided and that his government will push Cuba to reform human rights and political freedoms.
Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, toned down his anti-American rhetoric to hail the reconciliation as well as Cuba’s attendance for the first time in the summit’s 21-year history.
“The fact that Cuba is here is the greatest achievement of Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Maduro.
“When Raul sat in that chair, which belongs to Cuba, 60 years of revolution sat down. Fidel sat down,” he added.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who is now aged 88, served as prime minister from 1959 to 1976 and president from 1976 to 2008 – when he handed power to his brother Raul, 83.
Castro insists he will be cautious in passing any reforms and that Cuba has no intention of ending Communist Party rule.
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