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Historic Cuban presence at Summit of Americas
April 12, 2015, 10:28 am

For the first time since the Summits of the Americas was launched in 1994, there was a Cuban representation at this year’s Summit, which was held in Panama City on 10 and 11 April.

The Summit of Americas, which brings together leaders of countries in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean, has in previous years notably excluded Cuba due to pressure from the United States.

In previous summits, the US has repeatedly come in for criticism for its objection to having Cuba participate in the gatherings, as well as for its embargo against Cuba.

Speaking to media on the eve of the Seventh Summit of Americas in Panama, President Barack Obama said, "As we move towards the process of normalization, we'll have our differences government to government with Cuba on many issues. Just as we differ at times with other nations within the Americas, just as we differ with our closest allies."

However, the 53-year-old Obama, who was not even born when Fidel and Raul Castro swept to power in Cuba's 1959 revolution, also said the United States is no longer interested in trying to impose its will on Latin America. "The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past," he said.

Apart from a couple of brief, informal encounters, the leaders of the United States and Cuba have not had any significant meetings since the Cuban Revolution toppled U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and then steered the Caribbean country into a close alliance with the Soviet Union.

At the opening ceremony for the 35-nation summit on Friday, Mr. Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro briefly shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. The two leaders are due to meet again later on Saturday. It was the first formal discussion between the leaders of the US and Communist-run Cuba in more than five decades.

The summit is also likely to see the US President announce an end to the inclusion of Cuba in the US lists of countries which sponsor terrorism. Its presence on the list has been one of the main hurdles on the way to closer ties between the two countries.  However, the big prize is a lifting of the debilitating trade embargo that the US has imposed on Cuba.

Speaking about the rapprochement between the two countries Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, "We're in new territory here; the reason we're here is that the President strongly believes that an approach that was focused totally on isolation, focused totally on seeking to cut off the Cuban people from the United States of America had failed."

The smooth progress made between Cuba and the US stands in contrast to the bumpy ride that have been relations between Venezuela and the US over the past months.

While Mr. Obama named Cuba when he was talking about the US's days of meddling being in the past, the message was equally - if not more so - aimed at Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has not only accused the US of meddling in his country’s affairs but also of fomenting a coup against his government.

The distrust between the two countries was brought to the fore when Mr. Obama signed an executive order declaring Venezuela a threat to the national security of the US. Though State Department officials denied that the wording was "completely pro-forma", the damage had been done.

The Venezuelan president now plans to present Mr. Obama with a petition signed by millions of people demanding that the sanctions be reversed. He is certain to receive support from Castro and other left-wing leaders in Latin America. "It is no time for imperialism, threats, it is time for peace, cooperation, union, progress, prosperity," Maduro said on arrival in Panama.

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