Latin America

Challenges ahead for Obama, with US lawmakers skeptical about Cuba

US leader holds meeting with Raúl Castro, but declines to take country off terrorism list

Castro and Obama during their meeting at the summit in Panama.
Castro and Obama during their meeting at the summit in Panama.MANDEL NGAN / AFP

The bridge that US President Barack Obama began to build this past weekend via a historic meeting with Raúl Castro doesn’t quite reach Havana yet. But Obama still took a major step toward connecting Washington with the rest of Latin America on Saturday.

After the 7th Summit of the Americas held in Panama, the US leader seemed to have patched up relations with the rest of the continent by formally recognizing, and meeting with, the Cuban president.

“I think that after 50 years of policy that had not changed on the part of the United States, it was my belief that it was time to try something new, that it was important for us to engage more directly with the Cuban government and the Cuban people,” Obama said before his meeting with Castro in Panama City. “And as a consequence, I think we are now in a position to move on a path towards the future, and leave behind some of the circumstances of the past that have made it so difficult, I think, for our countries to communicate.”

After 50 years of policy that had not changed on the part of the United States, it was my belief that it was time to try something new” President Barack Obama

This change was well viewed by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who, after more than a year of differences with Washington over spying allegations, will travel to the United States for her first official visit on June 30. Obama made the announcement after meeting with her.

But the US president, who will leave office in January 2017, is still facing a tough battle on Capitol Hill.

Despite prior speculation, Obama didn’t announce, as many expected, that the US will remove Cuba from its official list of the countries that sponsor terrorism. And there is still no date set for when the two nations will reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington after more than 50 years.

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Washington lawmakers will have to decide whether the United States will lift its trade embargo with Cuba – tough negotiations between the president and Congress that are expected to be hammered out in the coming months.

In another thorny issue, Havana is also demanding that the United States return the land at Guantánamo Bay, which the US navy has occupied for more than a century.

Obama has not complied with his first campaign pledge to shut down the prison facility in Guantánamo, where the United States has run a military holding center for alleged terrorists since 2002.

At the Americas Summit, Obama held an informal meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and told him – face to face, according to the White House – that “the United States has no interest in threatening Venezuela but instead supports democracy, stability and prosperity for Venezuela and the rest of the region.”

Obama has not complied with his first campaign pledge to shut down the US prison in Guatánamo 

“Ultimately, resolving the tensions between the US and Cuba will help improve relations with the rest of the region,” said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a regional policy group.

Nevertheless, time is running out for Obama and the Democrats who will have to defend their new policy toward Cuba.

With Sunday’s announcement by former Secretary of State and former first lady Hillary Clinton that she will seek the party’s nomination for president next year, the race for the White House is expected to be tenacious if she ends up facing Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is opposed to Obama’s foreign policy.

But it is not only Rubio. Obama still has to convince many Democrats that his nuclear pact with Iran was the best course of action.

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