US – Cuba Thaw Advances
By Daniel Garcia Marco
HAVANA TIMES — US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro will further the rapprochement between their two countries during a face-to-face meeting at the UN on Tuesday, DPA reported.
The encounter, confirmed by the White House on Sunday, will be the second between the two leaders since December of last year, when they announced that the two countries would re-establish diplomatic relations after more than fifty years of rupture. The first, historic meeting took place in April, at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Last week, Obama and Castro spoke over the phone prior to Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the United States, suggesting contact between the two presidents begins to be regular and that the normalization process is making progress.
“It’s clear that the relations between the presidents are pragmatic and stable, and that they are now normal,” Michael Shifter, chair of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue Organization, told DPA.
Castro has been in New York since Thursday, his first visit to the United States in over 50 years. On Monday afternoon he will speak before the UN General Assembly for the first time. No Cuban president has attended this gathering since 2000, when Fidel Castro spoke there.
According to the Cuban press, Raul Castro has availed himself of his trip to meet with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, New York governor Andrew Cuomo and former US President Bill Clinton.
Such meetings, gatherings and speeches are business as usual for most countries, but not for Cuba, which is now slowly becoming integrated into the international political arena thanks to the impetus afforded by the normalization of relations with the United States.
“It’s a positive step, because it marks Cuba’s return to a forum from which only countries like North Korea and Syria are excluded,” said Shifter regarding the presence of Raul Castro, president of Cuba since 2008, at the UN headquarters in New York.
“It’s important for President Castro to go to the UN General Assembly. He’s the symbol of a new era,” Ben Rhodes, a high level White House official, said last week.
Castro made his debut at the UN on Saturday when he spoke at the Summit on Sustainable Development, which ended Sunday. The Cuban leader condemned the economic and commercial embargo on the island that the United States has maintained since the 1960s.
“The economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba for more than half a century brings challenges and privation to the Cuban people and is the main obstacle standing in the way of our country’s economic development,” said Castro, stating that the embargo is condemned by 188 UN member states.
The Cuban president also underscored the rapprochement with the island’s long-standing ideological rival and acknowledged Obama’s efforts especially.
“The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, the reopening of embassies in the two countries and the policy changes vis-a-vis Cuba that President Barack Obama has announced constitute important steps forward,” Castro declared on Saturday.
The US leader approved measures that relax the embargo – which can only by lifted by the US Congress – during the visit of Pope Francis, who began a tour of both countries on the 19th of the month.
The Pope figures as the mediator in the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, whose bilateral relations, despite differences, are becoming increasingly normal.