Will Obama-Castro handshake improve ties despite differences?

Will Obama-Castro handshake improve ties despite differences?
Cuba's President Raul Castro pretends not to hear questions from journalists as he and US President Barack Obama hold a bilateral meeting during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, April 11.

Will bilateral relations between the United States and Cuba smoothly improve despite the differences in political systems and values? We must watch developments carefully.

US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, held talks in Panama City on Saturday. It was the first such meeting between the two countries since 1961 when they severed diplomatic ties. Even after the end of the Cold War, the two countries have remained hostile to each other.

During the talks, Obama emphasised the will to "develop a new relationship" between the two countries. He also said Cuba is not a threat to the United States. The latest development indicates a drastic change in Washington's hitherto approach of making Cuba abandon its communist system by using economic sanctions to isolate the nation.

Castro said, "We are willing to discuss everything," indicating Cuba's hope of improving its bilateral ties with the United States so as to bail the country out of its prolonged economic woes.

During the talks, however, the two leaders did not go so far as to confirm that the United States would take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism nor did they agree on when to open embassies in Havana and Washington.

This indicates that serious obstacles remain before the two countries can normalise relations. The US Congress must approve any move by Washington to lift economic sanctions against Cuba entirely, a move deemed essential for normalizing their ties. Yet there are strong voices of caution or opposition to such moves, mainly by the Republican Party, which holds a majority in Congress.

Congressional members regard the communist dictatorship and wretched human rights situation in Cuba, including suppression of "freedom of expression," as serious problems.

During the talks, Obama said, "We will continue to try to lift up concerns around democracy and human rights."

Cuba reforms needed

Castro said the two governments still have many differences, but added, "We are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient." Through this remark, Castro indicated that although his country was moving ahead with economic reforms, it would take time to reform its political system.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, whose charismatic leadership helped him maintain a strong grip on the dictatorial regime over the long term, has retired, while his brother - the current president - is 83. The future course of a "post-Castro" regime is anyone's guess.

In the nation's leadership, there are strong fears the nation will become unstable. If the country aims to normalise relations with the United States, however, it is inevitable for the communist state to carry out political reforms.

After the talks, Obama told reporters, "I'm optimistic that we will continue to make progress and that this can indeed be a turning point - not just between the United States and Cuba, but for greater co-operation among countries across the region."

His remarks can be construed as taking into account that China in recent years has been rapidly expanding its influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, which the United States considers its backyard, or traditional area of dominance.

Despite the lack of diplomatic ties between Nicaragua and China, the construction of a 280-kilometer-long canal led by China began in Nicaragua late last year. The canal would allow the transport of natural resources and other products produced in South America to China in a shorter time than at present. The construction cost is estimated at ¥6 trillion (S$68 million).

Normalizing diplomatic ties with Cuba will be an important touchstone for whether the United States can regain sound leadership in this region.

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