US and Cuban officials meet in Panama amid historic thaw in relations

On Thursday, Cuban and US diplomats conducted their highest level talks since Cuba's communist revolution. Now, expectations are high for full diplomatic relations to be restored.

Courtesy via Reuters/U.S. State Department/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry (r.) shakes hands with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez in Panama City, Panama April 9, 2015, as they hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas.

US and Cuban diplomats met in Panama City Thursday in the highest-level meeting between the two governments in more than half a century, part of an ongoing thaw between the two countries that began when plans to restore diplomatic relations were announced four months ago.

Details of the meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, ahead of the opening of the Seventh Summit of the Americas today, were not released by either country.

Top on the list of issues for the two is removing Cuba from the US’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. During his visit to Jamaica Thursday, President Barack Obama announced that the State Department had completed its review of the matter and he was waiting for the White House security team to offer recommendations. Their decision could come quickly and leaves open the possibility that Obama could make a formal announcement at the summit.

"We don't want to be imprisoned by the past," Obama said in Kingston, Jamaica. "When something doesn't work for 50 years, you don't just keep on doing it. You try something new."

Lifting the terrorism designation would ensure that Obama has a smoother experience at the summit than he did at the last reunion in 2012, when he was isolated over US-Cuba policy. Then, every Organization of American States (OAS) nation except for Canada and the US called for Cuba to be invited to the summit, and several leaders refused to attend the reunion over Cuba's absence. US officials acknowledge growing regional hostility toward the US was a major factor in the rapprochement with Cuba. Time Magazine writes:

“In general, but particularly at this summit, symbolism matters,” says Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Castro’s presence is news in itself—this is the first time Cuba has attended an OAS summit since it was suspended in 1962, following its embrace of the Soviet Union. Castro stayed away even after the suspension was lifted in 2009, as Latin American countries rallied around the country the United States had tried to isolate for so long, and with steadily diminishing results. By the time of December’s announcement, [Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications] noted, U.S. policy on Cuba was having the perverse effect of isolating Washington, not the other way around.

So removing Cuba as a polarizing issue should help relations across Latin America, O’Neil says. “For so many years, this U.S.-Cuba standoff has been an overriding difficulty with all sorts of countries, not just the ones we have chronic difficulties with like Venezuela,” says O’Neil. And if Venezuela appears poised to replace Cuba as an polarizing topic, the State Department outreach may serve to temper that, taking Maduro almost instantly up on his reported willingness to smooth out relations with Washington rather than escalate. “The worry here is that all the other good change with Cuba might be overshadowed by Venezuela,” says O’Neil.

Both Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro are attending the two-day summit in Panama City. Though no formal meetings have been scheduled the two are expected to interact on the sidelines. The last time the two met was at the 2013 funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, where they historically shook hands.

If Cuba is removed from the terrorism list, it would ease the government’s ability to operate in Washington. It would also further the process of reopening embassies in Havana and Washington. Efforts to do so before the summit failed.

In Havana expectation are high. A new and rare survey of Cuban citizens shows that the vast majority hold high expectations that closer ties pledged by the two countries will shake up the island’s troubled economy, The Washington Post reports.

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