By Isaac Risco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES — The historic handshake on Friday evening between Barack Obama and Raul Castro dazzled the Summit of the Americas in Panama, if only to temporarily cover the profound differences between the presidents of the United States and Cuba.
It was the first time the two leaders met face-to-face after the diplomatic thaw announced in December.
Obama and Castro, who had already similarly greeted each other 16 months ago in South Africa at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, staged the new era between the two countries with a new handshake, this time surrounded by most Latin American leaders and recorded by television cameras.
“I must express (…) our great joy at this historical moment we live today,” said the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Manuel Insulza, shortly after the opening ceremony of the summit, celebrating the assistance for the first time of the 35 countries of the continent.
UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, also invited to the event, congratulated Castro and Obama for their “leadership” in the process of resuming relations between the two countries.
The expectations are huge on conversations that both presidents will have on Saturday, the final day of the summit, although a formal bilateral meeting is not scheduled.
The differences between the two countries, at odds ideologically for over five decades, were relegated to the background during the summit but not forgotten.
“The United States cannot push for Cuba to accept one thing it has never accepted,” recalled Cuban analyst Esteban Morales, referring to demands for greater political and economic openness that is often heard in Washington.
The political scientist also pointed to the usual assumptions in these days of diplomatic thaw on the possibility that US businesses expropriated after the revolution of 1959 request compensation from the Cuban state.
Cuba also has “a balance” to present, Morales told dpa. “At the time when the United States puts on the table (the subject of) compensation, we will put on the table the costs of the blockade,” he predicted.
Already during a speech made to all Latin American countries of CELAC in late January, Raul Castro demanded that Washington compensate Cuba for damages caused by the half-century embargo on Havana and return Guantanamo Bay, as a prelude to full normalization of bilateral ties.
However, apart from the summit itself, differences focusing on civil rights, historically the main point of contention between the two countries, were evident.
A delegation of Cuban government activists abandoned the Civil Society Forum in the afternoon, a parallel meeting of representatives of civil society from across the continent.
Castro supporters refused to share the space with a score of Cuban dissidents who had come to Panama to be at the forum. During the three days of the event held at the Hotel El Panama there were protests and incidents between the two groups.
We must “hear everyone,” Obama told the same forum Friday afternoon, in what sounded like a veiled criticism of the governments of Cuba and Venezuela for the harassment of political opponents.
“Civil society is the conscience of our countries (…), for that reason, strong nations do not fear active citizens and welcome citizens who speak openly, although they are not always right,” he added.
Upon leaving the Civil Society Forum, the US President met with more than a dozen activists of the continent, including two Cuban dissidents. Manuel Cuesta Morua and Laritza Diversent, who the Cuban government describes as “mercenaries” paid from abroad to attack the country.
The meeting took place just hours before the historic handshake between Obama and Castro before the leaders from all countries of the continent.