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Obama, Castro speak by phone amid bid to restore Cuba ties

Obama, Castro speak by phone amid bid to restore Cuba ties
BY JOSH LEDERMAN
04/10/2015 9:25 AM 04/10/2015 9:25 AM

PANAMA CITY (AP) – The presidents of the United States and Cuba have
spoken by phone for only the second time in more than 50 years, setting
the stage for a historic encounter between the two leaders at a regional
summit starting Friday in Panama.

The extraordinary, late-night call between Barack Obama and
Cuban President came shortly after both leaders arrived in
Panama City for the Summit of the Americas, which begins on Friday. The
two leaders have been working to restore diplomatic ties, a move that
sent shockwaves through Latin America when Obama and Castro announced it
in tandem in December.

Jorge Leganoa, the deputy director of Cuba’s state-run National
Information Agency, said in a Facebook post that Obama and Castro had
spoken by phone. He provided no additional details. The conversation was
confirmed by another diplomat, who requested anonymity to discuss
private presidential communications.

The White House declined to comment.

In another major step on Thursday, the U.S. and Cuba held their
highest-level diplomatic meeting since cutting off relations more than
half a century ago. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign
Minister Bruno Rodriguez met behind closed doors in Panama City for a
session that the State Department described as lengthy and productive.

The flurry of diplomacy was likely to reinvigorate ongoing efforts by
the U.S. and Cuba to start their relationship anew after five decades of
American presidents either isolating or working to overthrow the
government of or his brother, Raul Castro. Ahead of his
arrival in Panama, Obama announced he was close to a decision about
removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a major
impediment to warmer ties as far as Havana is concerned.

The U.S. has long since stopped actively accusing Cuba of supporting
terrorism, and Obama has hinted at his willingness to take Cuba off the
list ever since he and Castro announced a thaw in relations in December.
Yet Obama has stopped short of the formal decision amid indications that
the White House was reluctant to grant Cuba’s request until other thorny
issues – such as restrictions on U.S. diplomats in Havana – were resolved.

“We don’t want to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said on Thursday.
“When something doesn’t work for 50 years, you don’t just keep on doing
it. You try something new.”

The last known conversation between Obama and Castro was in December,
shortly before they announced the thaw in relations. The two leaders
exchanged a brief handshake in 2013 during Nelson Mandela’s funeral in
South Africa, but haven’t held any substantive in-person meetings.

Such an encounter was likely to take place either Friday or Saturday
during the summit in Panama.

Americans and Cubans alike can recall just how deep the animosity
between their countries ran during the Cold War, when even a casual,
friendly exchange between their leaders would have been unthinkable. So
while Obama and Castro have no formal meetings scheduled together, even
a brief handshake or hallway greeting will be scrutinized for signs of
whether the two nations are really poised to put their hostile pasts
behind them.

Even their arrival Thursday evening seemed steeped in symbolism: Obama,
after arriving in Panama City, was whisked via helicopter to his waiting
motorcade at an former known as Howard Air Force Base, from
which the U.S. launched its 1989 invasion of Panama.

Castro’s plane landed on the tarmac minutes later, missing Obama only
briefly – two world leaders passing warily in the night.

While Obama was in Panama on Friday, Copa Airlines and Boeing announced
plans for the Panamanian to purchase 61 of the U.S. airplane
giant’s 737 aircraft in what the companies called the largest commercial
deal between a U.S. and Panamanian company in history. Obama and
Panamanian President Juan Carlos were to attend the signing
ceremony for the deal, the White House said.

Obama was also to meet with other Central American leaders before
speaking at a forum of CEOs from the region. Later, Obama planned to
join Castro and other leaders for dinner at Panama Viejo, home to
archaeological ruins dating to the 1500s. A visit to the Panama Canal
was also possible.

Yet the real focus of the summit – for Obama and most others – was the
highly anticipated interaction between the U.S. and Cuban leaders.

Four months ago, Obama and Castro announced their intention to restore
diplomatic relations, beginning a painstaking process that has brought
to the surface difficult issues that have long fed in to the U.S.-Cuban
estrangement. Hopes of reopening embassies in Havana and Washington
before the summit failed to materialize. The U.S. is still pushing Cuba
to allow more of movement for its diplomats, while Cuba wants
relief from a sanctions regime that only Congress can fully lift.

In a nod to lingering U.S. concerns about and political
freedoms, Obama was making a point to attend a forum bringing together
both dissidents and members of the Cuban political establishment.

–––

Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez, Joshua Goodman and Jim
Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

–––

Reach Josh Lederman at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

Source: Obama, Castro speak by phone amid bid to restore Cuba ties |
Miami Herald Miami Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article18093800.html

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