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Obama-Castro meeting overshadows anti-US line at summit

Barack Obama

Panama City:  As usual when Latin America leftist leaders get together with US officials, there were plenty of swipes at the US 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 General 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 yesterday before the summit closed provides the US and Latin America with an opportunity to move beyond a history of grievances and mistrust, and set a course of closer cooperation.

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.

“I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution,” Castro said, noting that Obama wasn’t even born when the US imposed sanctions on the communist island. “I apologise to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”

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.

Even Maduro eased up, forgoing a threat to deliver a petition signed by 10 million Venezuelans calling on Obama to repeal the sanctions. Instead, as what he called the “Summit of the Truth” was closing, he also briefly spoke with Obama in a private exchange that Maduro said could open the door to meaningful dialogue between the two nations.

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