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Detente with Cuba diffuses harsh critics of US policy

By Agencies in Panama City | China Daily | Updated: 2015-04-13 07:34

As usual when Latin America leftist leaders get together with US officials, there were plenty of swipes at the United States during the seventh Summit of the Americas.

From 19th century territorial raids on Mexico to US support for the overthrow of Chile's socialist government in 1973 and the 1989 invasion of Panama that removed Genenral Manuel Noriega, Washington's interventions in Latin America were all targets of rebuke during long speeches by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his allies. That prompted President Barack Obama to retort, "I always enjoy the history lessons that I receive when I'm here."

But the historic meeting between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday before the summit closed provides the US and Latin America with an opportunity to move beyond a history of grievances and mistrust.

There were concerns in the run-up that recent US sanctions on Venezuelan officials could undermine the goodwill generated by Obama's decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, but they proved unfounded.

The conciliatory tone was set by Castro, who joked that since Cuba had been barred from the previous summits he was entitled to speak well beyond the eight minutes allotted to each of the 30-plus heads of state in attendance.

"Since you owe me six summits when you excluded me, six times eight is 48," he said to laughter.

While much of Castro's meandering remarks consisted of condemnation of US aggression, the high point came when the aging Cuban leader, in an abrupt about face, professed admiration for Obama, saying he had read his two memoirs and was convinced that he was an "honest man" who hadn't forgotten his humble roots.

The two leaders later sat down for the first meeting between Cuban and American heads of state since before the 1959 revolution the deposed Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista.

Obama also voiced support for a peaceful dialogue between Venezuela's government and the opposition during brief talks with Maduro.

Even Maduro eased up, forgoing a threat to deliver a petition signed by 10 million Venezuelans urging Obama to repeal the sanctions. Instead, he also briefly spoke with Obama in a private exchange that he said could open the door to meaningful dialogue between the two nations.

The White House said Obama reiterated his concern about the state of democracy in deeply divided Venezuela, but in his public speech Obama refrained from language declaring the situation in Venezuela a national security threat - the justification to freeze the assets of seven officials accused of human rights abuses tied to last year's anti-government protests.

Richard Feinberg, a former White House official who helped organize the first Summit of Americas in Miami in 1994, said the prospect of a US-Cuba detente has taken much of the wind out of the sails of the region's harshest critics of the US.

AP - Xinhua - AFP

Detente with Cuba diffuses harsh critics of US policy

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro as they hold a bilateral meeting during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on Saturday. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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