Presidents Obama and Castro’s Meeting at the Summit of the Americas

Raul Castro & Barack Obama
Raul Castro & Barack Obama

On April 11th U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba’s President Raul Castro had a private meeting at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama after each of them had given their major speeches. Here are their public statements immediately before that meeting  as well as Obama’s subsequent press conference on these issues. [1]

 President Barack Obama’s Pre-Meeting Comments

“This is obviously a historic meeting. The history between the United States and Cuba is obviously complicated, and over the years a lot of mistrust has developed. But during the course of the last several months, there have been contacts between the U.S. and the Cuban government. And in December, as a consequence of some of the groundwork that had been laid, both myself and President Castro announced a significant change in policy and the relationship between our two governments.”

“[A]fter 50 years of policy that had not changed on the part of the [U.S.], it was my belief that it was time to try something new, that it was important for us to engage more directly with the Cuban government and the Cuban people. And as a consequence, I think we are now in a position to move on a path towards the future, and leave behind some of the circumstances of the past that have made it so difficult, I think, for our countries to communicate.”

“Already we’ve seen majorities of the American people and the Cuban people respond positively to this change. And I truly believe that as more exchanges take place, more commerce and interactions resume between the [U.S.] and Cuba, that the deep connections between the Cuban people and the American people will reflect itself in a more positive and constructive relationship between our governments.”

“Now, obviously there are still going to be deep and significant differences between our two governments. We will continue to try to lift up concerns around democracy and human rights. And as you heard from President Castro’s passionate speech this morning, they will lift up concerns about U.S. policy as well.” [2]

“But I think what we have both concluded is that we can disagree with the spirit of respect and civility, and that over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship in our two countries.”

“And some of our immediate tasks include normalizing diplomatic relations and ultimately opening an embassy in Havana, and Cuba being able to open an embassy in Washington, D.C. so that our diplomats are able to interact on a more regular basis.”

“So I want to thank President Castro for the spirit of openness and courtesy that he has shown during our interactions. And I think if we can build on this spirit of mutual respect and candidness, that over time we will see not just a transformation in the relationship between our two countries, but a positive impact throughout the hemisphere and the world.”

“And President Castro earlier today spoke about the significant hardships that the people of Cuba have undergone over many decades. I can say with all sincerity that the essence of my policy is to do whatever I can to make sure that the people of Cuba are able to prosper and live in freedom and security, and enjoy a connection with the world where their incredible talents and ingenuity and hard work can thrive.”

 President Raul Castro’s Pre-Meeting Comments (English translation)

“Mr. President, friends from the press, we have been making long speeches and listening to many long speeches too, so I do not want to abuse the time of President Obama or your time.”

“I think that what President Obama has just said, it’s practically the same as we feel about the topics, including human rights, freedom of the press. We have said on previous occasions to some American friends that we are willing to discuss every issue between the [U.S.] and Cuba. We are willing to discuss about those issues that I have mentioned and about many others, as these — both in Cuba but also in the [U.S.].”

“I think that everything can be on the table. I think that we can do it, as President Obama has just said, with respect for the ideas of the other. We could be persuaded of some things; of others, we might not be persuaded. But when I say that I agree with everything that the President has just said, I include that we have agreed to disagree. No one should entertain illusions. It is true that we have many differences. Our countries have a long and complicated history, but we are willing to make progress in the way the President has described.”

“We can develop a friendship between our two peoples. We shall continue advancing in the meetings which are taking place in order to re-establish relations between our countries. We shall open our embassies. We shall visit each other, having exchanges, people to people. And all that matters is what those neighbors can do; we are close neighbors, and there are many things that we can have.”

“So we are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient — very patient. Some things we will agree on; others we will disagree. The pace of life at the present moment in the world, it’s very fast. We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow. And we hope that our closest assistants –some of them are here with us today — we hope that they will follow the instructions of both Presidents.”

President Obama’s Post-Meeting Press Conference

Immediately after his meeting with President Castro, Obama held a press conference with the following additional remarks about Cuba.

“In keeping with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, we continue to stand up strongly for democracy and human rights.  This was the first Summit of the Americas to include a formal role for civil society.  As I said at yesterday’s forum, the [U.S.] will continue to deepen our support for civil society groups across the Americas and around the world.  I’m pleased that there was widespread agreement among the nations here that civil society groups have a permanent role in future summits.  And the [U.S.] will support this work through the new innovation center we’re creating to empower civil society groups across Latin America.”

“How to promote greater opportunity for the Cuban people was also a major focus of my meeting with President Castro, the first between leaders of our two nations in more than half a century.  I told President Castro in private what I’ve have said in public — that our governments will continue to have differences and the [U.S.] will continue to stand firmly for universal values and human rights.  At the same time, we agreed that we can continue to take steps forward that advance our mutual interests. We’ll continue to work toward reestablishing diplomatic relations, reopening embassies in Havana and Washington, and encouraging greater contacts and commerce and exchanges between our citizens.”

“I’m optimistic that we’ll continue to make progress and that this can indeed be a turning point — not just between the [U.S.] and Cuba, but for greater cooperation among countries across the region.”

“[W]ith respect to Cuba, there is majority support of our policy in the [U.S.], and there’s overwhelming support for our policy in Cuba.  I think people recognize that if you keep on doing something for 50 years and it doesn’t work, you should try something new.”

“And so the American people don’t need to be persuaded that this is, in fact, the right thing to do.  I recognize that there are still concerns and questions that Congress may have; we’ve got concerns and questions about specific activities that are taking place in Cuba, and human rights and reform.  And there were two members of the Cuban civil society that were in attendance at the meeting that I had yesterday who expressed much of what they have to go through on a day-to-day basis.  They were supportive of our policy of engagement with Cuba. And so I don’t think that it’s so much we have to persuade anybody.”

“The issue of the State Sponsor of Terrorism list — as you know, the State Department has provided a recommendation; it’s gone through our interagency process.  I’ll be honest with you, I have been on the road, and I want to make sure that I have a chance to read it, study it, before we announce publicly what the policy outcome is going to be.” [2]

“But in terms of the overall direction of Cuba policy, I think there is a strong majority both in the United States and in Cuba that says our ability to engage, to open up commerce and travel and people-to-people exchanges is ultimately going to be good for the Cuban people.”

“It was a candid and fruitful conversation between me and Raul Castro.  I can tell you that, in the conversations I’ve had so far with him — two on the phone and, most recently, face-to-face — that we are able to speak honestly about our differences and our concerns in ways that I think offer the possibility of moving the relationship between our two countries in a different and better direction.”

“We have very different views of how society should be organized.  And I was very direct with him that we are not going to stop talking about issues like democracy and human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press — not because we think we are perfect and that every country has to mimic us exactly, but because there are a set of universal principles for which we stand.”

“And one of the goals of my administration is to have some consistency in speaking out on behalf of those who oftentimes don’t have a voice.  And I think during his speech in the plenary session, he was pretty clear about areas of U.S. policy he doesn’t like, and I suspect he’s going to continue to speak out on those.”

“What’s been clear from this entire summit, though, is the unanimity with which, regardless of their ideological predispositions, the leaders of Latin America think this is the right thing to do.  Because what they see is the possibility of a more constructive dialogue that ultimately benefits the Cuban people, and removes what too often has been a distraction or an excuse from the hemisphere acting on important challenges that we face.”

“So I am cautiously optimistic that over the coming months and coming years that the process that we’ve initiated, first announced in December, reaffirmed here at the Summit of the Americas, will lead to a different future for the Cuban people and a different relationship between the United States and Cuba.

“On Cuba, we are not in the business of regime change. We are in the business of making sure the Cuban people have freedom and the ability to participate and shape their own destiny and their own lives, and supporting civil society.”

“And there’s going to be an evolution, regardless of what we do, inside of Cuba.  Partly it’s going to be generational.  If you listened to President Castro’s comments earlier this morning, a lot of the points he made referenced actions that took place before I was born, and part of my message here is the Cold War is over.  There’s still a whole lot of challenges that we face and a lot of issues around the world, and we’re still going to have serious issues with Cuba on not just the Cuban government’s approach to its own people, but also regional issues and concerns.  There are going to be areas where we cooperate as well.  Cuban doctors deployed during the Ebola crisis made a difference; Cuban activity in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake made a difference.  And so there may be areas of collaboration as well.”

“What I said to President Castro is the same thing that I’ve said to leaders throughout the region.  We have a point of view and we won’t be shy about expressing it.  But I’m confident that the way to lift up the values that we care about is through persuasion.  And that’s going to be the primary approach that we take on a whole host of these issues — primarily because they don’t implicate our national security in a direct way.”

“And I think that we have to be very clear if Cuba is not a threat to the United States.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have differences with it.  But on the list of threats that I’m concerned about, I think it’s fair to say that between ISIL and Iran getting a nuclear weapon, and activities in Yemen and Libya, and Boko Haram, Russian aggression in Ukraine and the impact on our allies there — I could go down a pretty long list — climate change — so I think our approach has to be one of trying to work with the region and other countries, and be very clear about what we believe and what we stand for, and what we think works and what doesn’t.”

“And so often, when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive.  It backfires.  That’s been part of our history — which is why countries keep on trying to use us as an excuse for their own governance failures.  Let’s take away the excuse.  And let’s be clear that we’re prepared to partner and engage with everybody to try to lift up opportunity and prosperity and security for people in the region.”

I “did not get into the [minute] details [about rescinding the State Sponsor of Terrorism with President Castro.] As I said before, the State Sponsor of Terrorism recommendation will be coming to me.  I will read it; I’ll review it.  There’s a process whereby if, in fact, I accept those recommendations, Congress has an opportunity to review it, as well, and it will be there for people to see.”

“I think that the concerns around the embassy are going to be mostly on the Cuban side.  They haven’t dealt with an American embassy in Cuba in quite some time.  And changing in this way is, I’m sure, an unsettling process.  We’re accustomed to this.  We . . . “are familiar with how that gets done in a way that’s consistent with improving diplomatic relations over the long term.  This is probably a more profound shift for them than it is for us.”

“But we stand ready to move forward.  We’re confident that it can lead to an improved dialogue.  And our bottom line at the end is, is that it can lead to an improved set of prospects for the Cuban people.”


[1] In addition to the hyperlinked text of these remarks, this post is based upon the following: Lederman & Kuhnhenn, In historic face to face, Obama and Castro vow to turn the page, Wash. Post (April 11, 2015), DeYoung & Miroff, Obama and Castro hold historic meeting, agree to foster a ‘new relationship,’ Wash. Post (April 11, 2015).  Future posts will cover other aspects of the Summit of the Americas. Prior posts set forth substantial extracts of Obama’s and Castro’s major speeches at the Summit.

[2] As discussed in a prior post, President Obama on April 14th rescinded the designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, to be effective in 45 days.


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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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