- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Four months after announcing a historic diplomatic thaw with Cuba, and with key questions about the future of the two nations’ relationship still unanswered, President Obama will come face-to-face with the leader of the communist island later this week at a top-level summit in Panama.

White House officials say it’s all but certain Mr. Obama will “interact” with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas, which begins Friday. The highly anticipated confrontation in some ways harks back to 2009, when Mr. Obama attended the summit for the first time and infamously greeted the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez with a smile and a handshake, sparking a backlash among critics who claimed the president was naive in his willingness to make peace with America’s enemies.

While the administration says it’s on the road to normalized relations with its old Cold War foe after 50 years of isolation, top lawmakers, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a Cuban-American, say the president is making another major foreign policy error. They say Mr. Castro’s very presence at the summit gives the impression the U.S. and other nations condone Cuba’s continued oppression of political dissidents and other offensive human rights policies.

The anger at Mr. Obama’s surprise outreach to Havana in December shows little sign of easing.

“President Obama’s Cuba policy and his support for Raul Castro’s participation in this summit have sent the wrong kind of message to the rest of the hemisphere that being democratic and respecting human rights are negotiable and no longer prerequisites for participating in this forum,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement.

The White House maintains it can more effectively influence Cuban policy by having a direct line of communication with Mr. Castro’s regime. Officials stress they deeply oppose the taking of political prisoners and other human rights violations on the island.

SEE ALSO: New U.S.-Cuba policy fuels families’ hopes, fears

But determination to mend fences and warm greetings between Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro won’t change the fact that the highly touted diplomatic reboot has gotten off to a rocky start.

Plans to open a U.S. embassy in Havana remain grounded as the White House weighs whether Cuba should be removed from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba has been on the list since 1982.

Mr. Obama has directed his State Department to expedite the review of Cuba’s status, and Havana is insisting the issue be addressed before embassies can be opened and other steps to normalize relations move forward.

The State Department reportedly is set to issue a recommendation within days that Cuba be removed from the list, though Mr. Obama still would have to sign off on the move.

“Our hope is to be in a position where we can open an embassy there, that we can start having more regular contacts and consultations around a whole host of issues, some of which we have interests in common,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with NPR.

Aiming for normalization

Despite the hang-ups, the administration is dead set on making the normalization of relations with Cuba a part of Mr. Obama’s legacy, and officials see the summit as a key step toward that goal.

“The president has a clear legacy he’s aiming to build in the hemisphere that is focused on moving beyond some of the past divisiveness within the Americas, finding new ways to engage our partners on a basis of mutual interest and mutual respect,” Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning.

Mr. Rhodes said there is no official Obama-Castro meeting on the summit agenda, but it’s all but guaranteed Mr. Obama will meet with the 83-year-old Cuban leader, the younger brother of longtime island strongman Fidel Castro.

“I’m sure President Obama will be interacting with President Castro,” he said.

It won’t be the first public meeting for the two leaders: Mr. Obama shook the Cuban leader’s hand and exchanged a few brief words when the two crossed paths at South African leader Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in December 2013.

And there are some in the region who argue a thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations could have wider benefits and help Washington’s standing with countries across Central and South America that have long criticized the U.S. embargo.

Both the U.S. and Cuba “were losing in the way things had been handled,” former Mexican President Vicente Fox told The Washington Times in an interview earlier this month. “This could be a great step forward, and I hope they go all the way to full normalization.”

At the gathering, Mr. Obama and his team also will have to explain why it’s taking friendly steps toward Cuba while imposing new economic sanctions on Venezuela over human rights violations.

Mr. Obama’s executive action on immigration, and efforts to stop the flow of unaccompanied minors into the U.S. from Honduras, Panama and elsewhere, also will be key topics at the summit.

But Cuba is expected to take center stage.

Specialists say an Obama-Castro meeting would send a strong signal that it’s a new diplomatic day in both Washington and Havana, but they also caution that Cuba won’t transform into an American-style democracy simply because of a handshake.

Cuba is willing to rethink its relationship with the U.S. not because it has suddenly had a change of heart, according to analysts. Instead, Mr. Castro is moving out of economic necessity, hoping that diplomatic overtures to Washington result in the lifting of a decades-old embargo and bring other financial benefits to the island, said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“A big symbolic gesture like a handshake in front of everybody is more likely, I’d say, because of the effect it would have to sort of define a post-Cold War approach to the region,” Mr. Meacham said. “Most people who are in the know on the Cuba relationship knew that the Cubans would be brought into this arrangement not out of choice but out of necessity. They are going to do as much as they can to slow down the process of normalization. It would be a surprise if they were willing to move at the pace we’re trying to move at regarding this new chapter in the relationship.”

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