Monday, April 20, 2009

Summit of the Americas: Cuba-U.S. relations warm

Summit of the Americas homepage

"The ghost at the conference table" The Economist

"Obama offers Cuba a 'new beginning'" BBC

"At Summit of the Americas, the spotlight is on Cuba" Miami Herald

"U.S., Cuba trade warm words ahead of summit" MSNBC

The fifth Summit of the Americas was held April 17-19 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The stated purpose of the Summit, which the 34-member Organization of American States (OAS) holds every four years, is to "bring together the Heads of State and Government of the Western Hemisphere to discuss common concerns, seek solutions and develop a shared vision for their future development of the region, be it economic, social or political in nature." The theme for this year’s Summit was "Securing Our Citizens' Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability." However, a key focus of this year’s Summit was U.S.-Cuba relations.

Relationships between the United States and Cuba have been thawing, especially after a change in both administrations: President Raul Castro, who took over for his brother Fidel in February, 2008, and President Obama have both expressed interest in negotiating toward lifting the United States’ long-standing economic embargo against Cuba. Recently, both countries have been willing to admit past mistakes. Leading up to the Summit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that the old U.S. policy toward Cuba had failed, and President Obama said the United States is seeking a "new beginning" with Cuba. Also, the Obama administration recently eased restrictions to allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba and send money home more easily. At the Summit, President Obama explained, "I have already changed a Cuba policy that has failed to advance liberty or opportunity for the Cuban people. . . Over the past two years, I have indicated, and I repeat today, that I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues, from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues."

Before the Summit, President Castro said he was ready to talk about "everything" with the United States, including human rights, political prisoners and freedom of the press. Castro also admitted that "We could be wrong, we admit it. We're human beings. We're willing to sit down to talk as it should be done, whenever." Secretary Hillary Clinton called Castro’s comments a "very welcome gesture." The number of political prisoners in Cuba has already dropped by one-third since Raul Castro took power. President Castro has also offered to trade political prisoners jailed in Cuba for five convicted Cuban intelligence agents jailed in the United States. This offer could mean freedom for 200 prisoners who are jailed for offenses including independent journalism and planting bombs in attempts to destabilize Cuba. President Obama is moving cautiously given the historic mistrust between the two nations and failed promises on both sides. The offer is still being considered. Where do things stand now? Neither side has set conditions on talk, but Obama insists Cuba make another move before the United States takes more action. President Castro demands the U.S. trade embargo be abolished, but Obama has said that will not happen until Cuba moves toward democracy.

It is telling that Cuba was not allowed to attend the conference. Cuba has been suspended from the OAS since 1962 and from the summits since the first summit met in 1994. Part of Cuba’s historic exclusion might come from the fact that the United States funds 70% of the OAS. Most Latin American leaders have been calling for Cuba to be admitted.

In addition to Cuban relations, it was clear that Obama was trying to repair relations between the United States and Latin America as a whole. He stated, "I didn't come here to debate the past, I came here to deal with the future. As neighbors, we have a responsibility to each other and to our citizens. And by working together, we can take important steps forward to advance prosperity, security, and liberty." Despite general (and expected) criticism of the United States from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, it was clear that President Obama received a much warmer welcome from the Latin American leaders the did his predecessor, Bush.

1) Is this a new era for U.S.-Cuba relations or simply talk?
2) How should the United States react to President Castro’s offer to exchange prisoners?

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