PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago – The U.S. and Cuba built sudden momentum Friday toward easing a half-century of hostility as President Barack Obama met Havana’s willingness to discuss sensitive topics, including human rights, with a declaration that he is ready for a “new beginning” in relations.
One official admitted the Obama administration was caught off guard by Cuban leader Raul Castro’s willingness to discuss issues long considered off-limits by the communist leadership. Obama wants Cuba to make the next move, possibly by releasing political prisoners or removing restrictions on the media, the official said.
Cuba’s willingness to talk does not mean that it is willing to change policies. But the rhetorical exchange was the most hopeful sign in years of a thawing in relations between the two countries. Obama has called for a new openness to Cuba and began easing restrictions on contacts with the island.
Castro responded at a meeting Thursday of leftist leaders in Venezuela. “We are willing to discuss everything – human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about,” Castro said. “We could be wrong; we admit it. We’re human.”
Obama, in opening remarks at the summit, spoke of the relationship between the two countries.
“The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,” Obama said. “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.”
Analysts and lawmakers who favor expanded contact with Cuba cautioned that at least three attempts in the past 35 years to relax tensions collapsed in acrimony.
But Castro’s explicit offer to discuss issues such as political prisoners and human rights with U.S. officials was apparently a first for a top Cuban official, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama administration officials were “particularly struck” by that concession.
During his opening remarks at the Summit of the Americas, Obama did not say he would seek to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba. But he indicated an openness to shift U.S. policies, pointing to his decision earlier this week to ease travel and financial restrictions on Cuban-Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking earlier, addressed Castro’s remarks even more directly.
“We welcome this overture,” she said at a news conference. “We’re taking a serious look at how we intend to respond.”
The two countries remain stalemated on major issues: Cuba wants the U.S. to lift the embargo and remove travel restrictions, but the Obama administration wants Cuba to first free political prisoners, improve human rights and adopt economic reforms before taking more drastic steps.
Nonetheless, experts said that even in the absence of progress on major issues, U.S. and Cuban officials could take first steps in other areas, such as population migration or counternarcotics efforts.
Cuba was not invited to the Summit of the Americas because Castro was not democratically elected.
However, the country’s inclusion in the economic and diplomatic affairs of the hemisphere emerged as a top subject of the three-day summit. Many leaders called for a repeal of the U.S. embargo and greater inclusion of Cuba.
“I don’t feel comfortable attending this summit,” said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a one-time rebel leader. “I feel ashamed of the fact that I’m participating in the summit with the absence of Cuba.”
The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, said he would push for Cuba’s inclusion in the organization.
The Cuban government has repeatedly hinted that it is ready for a thaw in relations with the U.S., only to clamp down, possibly fearful that improved U.S. relations would threaten its hold on power.
Cuba experts and lawmakers cautioned that the latest warming signs could be short-lived as well.
“I think they get spooked whenever we get closer, and they want to push it back,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a longtime advocate for expanded U.S. contact with Cuba. “I’ve never been convinced they want us to fully lift the travel ban.”
Nonetheless, experts were astonished at Castro’s comments.
Castro’s willingness to discuss human rights issues and political prisoners represented a major break, experts said.
“That’s the news,” said Daniel P. Erikson, a longtime Cuba watcher at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank. “That’s been such a deal breaker.”
Michael Landweber, a former State Department official now at the Partnership for a Secure America, said the Cuba opening posed a “great opportunity to test Obama’s strategy of sitting down to talk” with longtime foes.