In a symbolic gesture, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands Friday night at the Summit of Americas, a move that may signal both parties are willing to let the past rest.
After decades of hostility following the Cold War, the United States and Cuba appear ready to restore a peaceful relations. President Obama said enough time has passed, and that the time has come to work with his Cuban counterpart.
"The United States will not be imprisoned by the past," Obama said, reported the Associated Press. He was not even born when the Castro brothers came to power in 1959. "We're looking to the future."
So what exactly do the two countries hope to achieve by rapprochement?
The issue is one of the core components of the Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama, an event where leaders of the Western hemisphere join to discuss policy and affirm shared values. This is the first year Cuba has joined the Summit.
Castro joked about his nation's absence in a bid for more speaking time Saturday. He noted that the leaders' speeches were supposed to last around eight minutes. But he asked for special dispensation. "Since you owe me six summits when you excluded me, six times eight is 48," he said to laughter.
Obama and Castro are expected to meet on Saturday to discuss restoration of diplomatic relations, as well as efforts to boost trade and travel between Cuba and the U.S. The State Department has also recommended that Cuba be removed from the terrorism list. That's an important signal and would pave the way for official embassies to be reopened in Washington and Havana. It would also give Cuba access to more credit and international financing. While Obama is expected to agree, it is unknown whether this will be addressed during the Summit.
Overall, Obama said it is time to accept its differences with Cuba and move to a point of working in harmony.
"As we move towards the process of normalization, 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 Friday, reported Reuters.
While shaking hands may be a good first step, there is still plenty of work to be done on relations between the two countries. A recent poll by MSCNBC/Telemundo/Marist found that 59 percent of Americans, including 56 percent Latinos, support better relations between the U.S. and Cuba. However, the economic embargo on Cuba is still in effect, and can only be removed by Congress. The effort to remove it has met resistance from influential Cuban-Americans who argue a change in the country’s one-party political system is necessary, reported Reuters.
Some Cuban-Americans who have personal ties to Cuba argue that the meeting between Obama and Castro will do little to repair the damage that has occurred in the last few decades. Maria Elena Sanabria, who fled Cuba for Spain and eventually came to the United States in 1980, said nothing will change until the Castro brothers are no longer in power.
"This is not going to help the Cuban people . . . People have their eyes fixed on the meeting but it won't change anything," she said, reported NBC News.
Eladio Jose Armesto, an Cuban-born attorney who lives in Miami, told NBC News that U.S. sanctions will not work in healing ties, nor should rapprochement be seen as condoning Cuba’s past actions.
“[The meeting between Obama and Castro] should not be seen as an endorsement of the Castro regime or as ignoring the regime's terrible violation of human rights," he said, reported NBC News.
He continued, saying Cuban people need to feel empowered with knowledge, and that “isolating Cuban people only strengthens the regime.”
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the economic embargo that began in the 60s not only isolated Cuba, but also negatively impacted the US. "Our Cuba policy, instead of isolating Cuba, was isolating the United States in our own backyard," he said, reported NBC News.