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New beginning, old conflicts at Panama summit

No one is expecting a Soviet-style embrace, but at the very least a hand shake – maybe even a timid slap on the back – when US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meet face to face here in Panama for the Summit of the Americas.

It is a moment that will cement what is being described as a historic turning point that marks the end of Cuba’s exclusion from the “Family of the Americas”.

Cuba was suspended from the Organisation of American States 53 years ago, under pressure from Washington.

While Cuba has sat at many other forums in the same room as the US, this is the first time in more than half a century that Communist Cuba has been allowed back into a hemispheric gathering, which includes the US and Canada.

But does this mean the end of hostilities between the Communist island and its number one adversary? Far from it.

In fact, even before the presidents arrived, I was surprised to hear members of a pro-Cuban government delegation shouting slogans dating back to the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, such as “Cuba SI, Yanki NO”.

They seemed odd considering that the main target of their protest were other Cubans, most of them dissidents like Rosa Maria Paya and Elizardo Sanchez, who have also come to Panama to draw attention to their political demands.

Pro- and anti-Castro activists have come to blows more than once in the days leading up to the summit, throwing a bucket of cold water on Panama’s naive hopes of demonstrating peace and love between Cubans on opposite sides of the political divide.

President Raul Castro has said he plans to promote constructive dialogue in Panama, but there is no doubt that the summit will be a forum for him to underscore Cuba’s demands for a full and unconditional lifting of the US economic embargo against his country.

It is the longest-standing embargo in history, and President Castro knows that on this score, he has the support of practically all of his regional peers.

Obama will also need to show his critics at home that he has not gone soft on human rights, as he pushes for the full renewal of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

This is why he is unlikely to leave Panama without calling for broader political freedoms in Cuba.

My guess is that the niceties will be short, unlike the the temptation to prove that sitting at the same table will not erase half a century of political differences and distrust.

Lucia Newman

Source: Al Jazeera

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