President Obama will meet this week with Cuban president Raul Castro, in the first substantive talks between the leaders of the two neighboring countries in 67 years and the most high-profile step in the normalization process announced by Obama in December.
But the White House is trying to lower expectations for the historic get-together, insisting the conversations between the presidents will be kept "on the margins" of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, and downplaying the chances of any diplomatic breakthroughs.
Even before Obama makes it to Panama City, though, there are reports that he is prepared to remove Cuba from the State Department's list of "State Sponsors of Terrorism," a key demand by Cuba to move forward on restoring full diplomatic relations. Cuba is one of only four countries on that list and has been there since 1982.
Such a move would guarantee Obama a much warmer reception than he had in any of his previous meetings with Latin American leaders. Across the region, the changes the president has made in his foreign policy since 2012, including on immigration and efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, have been broadly popular. "He will arrive in Panama as the man of diplomacy and peace, " said Richard Feinberg, who was a top adviser on Latin affairs to President Clinton.
For Obama, this should be a 180-degree turn from his experience at the previous Summit of the Americas—the 2012 meeting in Cartagena, Colombia.
Obama was on the defensive at that gathering, alone with Canada in refusing to invite Cuba, and forced to defend his foreign policy, his conduct of the war on drugs, and his failure to secure immigration reform. Making it even worse for him, recalled Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, was the "horrible spectacle of the Secret Service romping around with Colombian prostitutes."
Three years later, the outlook for Obama in Panama City is generally rosy, primarily because of the shift in American policy toward Cuba announced by the president in December. That averted a showdown over the invitation to Castro and set the stage for what the White House prefers to call "interaction" between Obama and the 83-year-old Cuban leader.
Not since President Harry S. Truman welcomed Cuban President Carlos Prio Socarras to the White House on Dec. 8, 1948 has there been a serious face-to-face conversation between the leaders of the two countries separated by only 90 miles of the Straits of Florida. After Fidel Castro seized power Jan. 1, 1959, the only personal interaction has been two handshakes—President Clinton and Fidel Castro in 2000 at the United Nations, and Obama and Raul Castro in 2013 at Nelson Mandela's funeral in Johannesburg. There also was a telephone conversation between Raul Castro and Obama last December.
Now comes a summit that will have the two leaders together in multiple meetings with even more opportunities for conversations on the sidelines. And as much as the White House tries to lower expectations, the reality is that no one quite knows what to expect.
"This is, after all, the first big photo opportunity" with the two leaders together, said Ted Piccone, a senior foreign policy adviser on both Clinton's National Security Council and at the State Department.
Piccone, now with the Brookings Institution, expects the time together in Panama City to give a jolt from the top to the mid-level talks on normalization. But he said the two leaders most likely will be quite low-key. "I don't think there will be a lot of hugs and kisses. I think it will be serous and it will be respectful and measured," he said.
The excitement will come from the reaction of others. Feinberg, known as "the father" of the Summit of the Americas because of his work on the initial 1994 summit for Clinton, recalled the buzz created at the 2012 summit by the singer Shakira's attendance. "The Panamanians do not have a Shakira," he said. "So instead they are bringing ... another star of the Western Hemisphere: Raul Castro."
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, said the president's opening to Cuba "takes a huge irritant out of our policy in Latin America and the Caribbean."
Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, told Reuters earlier this year that Castro's attendance "opens the door for everyone. We can now deal with matters together. It releases a lot of tensions and pressures."
It took more than his move on Cuba, though, to thaw the icy views of Obama among the hemispheric leaders. The leaders welcome what they see as increased American flexibility on drug interdiction, approve of his executive actions on immigrants living illegally in the U.S., and applaud the preliminary deal he struck last week with Iran.
"The Iranian agreement ... looks very, very promising, and the importance of that should not be underestimated," said Feinberg, adding that the region now sees the president "moving forward, the man of peace, the man of engagement, courageously confronting the parties of war and tough sanctions. ... He will ride in at a very high moment for American leadership."
For the Latin Americans, though, there is one huge caveat restraining their applause. That is the president's announcement last month of limited sanctions against seven individual Venezuelans seen as complicit in President Nicolas Maduro's corruption and repression of his critics. Those sanctions are immensely unpopular in the region and have set up Maduro for a stunt at the summit when he plans to present Obama with petitions he claims were signed by millions of his countrymen demanding an end to the sanctions.
The White House was surprised by the widespread denunciations of the sanctions, particularly from Latin leaders who blame Maduro for mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy and disapprove of his heavy-handed methods. The sticking point is the language used in the sanctions announcement. The document described Venezuela as "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States" and declared "a national emergency to deal with that threat." It is language required by the law that allows a president to impose sanctions on individuals.
But for many Latin Americans, it recalled more than a century of unwanted U.S. interference in their affairs.
Jacobson at the State Department complained in a presentation at Brookings that the issue of the language "has been blown way out of proportion." She called it both "infelicitous" and "standard." She insisted that the words "are not a prelude to invasion. We have no desire to overthrow a government."
But that is not how the language was interpreted in the region. "The language that was used was deeply offensive to Venezuela, and it really was deeply offensive to a lot of people in the region who had worked for a long time to push back against this interventionism from the United States," said Eric L. Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center. "It was a diplomatic misstep on the part of the administration."
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