TIME faith

How the Vatican and Cuba Came Together

Jan. 26, 1998
Cover Credit: GERARD RANCINAN The Jan. 26, 1998 cover of TIME

John Paul II visited the island in 1998

The Vatican’s statement on Friday that Pope Francis is “considering” a visit to Cuba when he is in North America in the fall has brought new attention to the special relationship between the island nation and the Catholic leader. The Pope has been credited with encouraging the recent signs of rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, something his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, also spoke in favor of during a 2012 trip to Cuba.

Though Cuba has historic ties to the Catholic religion, that special relationship is really only two decades old: It was around 1995 that Fidel Castro began working on what ended up being Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba.

The anti-religion stance of strict Marxism had kept Cubans away from religion for decades and the crumbling of the Soviet Union only led Cuba to dig in, with hopes of proving the ideology’s endurance. At the same time, however, that period of enforcement was one of economic hardship, perhaps contributing to a rise in interest in both spiritual help and religious charity. “In 1991 Castro rescinded the ban against Christians’ joining the Communist Party,” writer Johanna McGeary explained, “and in 1992 he declared Cuba a secular, not an atheist, state.”

That change had been a long time coming:

The idea of a papal visit has actually intrigued Cuba’s leader for nearly two decades. It is not so strange as it might seem: from the very start of his revolution, Castro has sought political pilgrimages from the influential and famous as a sign of international approbation. And Castro has never feared talking to his adversaries. Although he barred Christians from the Communist Party, nationalized Catholic schools, expelled foreign priests and nuns, he never shut down the churches or prohibited religious worship or broke relations with the Vatican.

In 1979 Castro met some liberation-theology priests in Nicaragua and, says Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, “decided that social justice, greater equality and caring for the poor were not very different goals from those of the Cuban revolution.” So he invited the Pontiff to stop by during a Mexican tour that year, but the “technical layover” Castro offered held no appeal to John Paul II.

By 1985 it seemed to Castro that signs of nonconformity and a search for new ideas were infecting the populace. Little by little, people were going back to church. So he spent 23 hours talking to a Brazilian Dominican friar, Frei Betto. The subsequent book, Fidel and Religion, became a national best seller. Here was the apostle of Marxism expounding on his Catholic upbringing and attitudes toward religion. He recalled his devout mother and his rigorous parochial education. He had been baptized and was taught biblical history and Catholic catechism. At his upper-class Jesuit high school he absorbed the determination and discipline of these militant teachers who prophesied in his yearbook that he would make a brilliant name for himself.

While he called Christ “a great revolutionary” whose teachings coincide with the aims of socialism, Castro insisted that “no one could instill religious faith in me through the mechanical, dogmatic methods that were employed. I never really held a religious belief.” Later on, he said, “I had other values: a political belief which I forged on my own, as a result of my experience, analysis and sentiments.” Nevertheless, the rebel wore a small cross on his guerrilla garb in the early days of the revolution. In the book, he astonished Cubans with the extent of his religious knowledge and the flattering comparisons he drew between Christianity and Marxism. “Karl Marx,” he said, “would have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount.” Christians, he added, had been excluded from Cuba’s government not for ideological reasons but for historical mistakes in supporting the prerevolution status quo. Suddenly the subject of religion was no longer taboo.

Castro’s goals in eventually inviting the Pope for the 1998 visit were complex, and the results at first seemed modest. Large crowds had turned out to see John Paul II but no major news was made by either side. (Another contributing factor in the lack of news made by the visit: that was the same week President Clinton denied having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.) But today, many years later, it’s clear that the papal visit of 1998 did change something. It restarted a relationship between Cuba and the Vatican — a relationship that just might get another chapter very soon.

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Clash of Faiths

TIME Cuba

Pope Considering Cuba Stop During U.S. Trip but No Decision

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 15, 2015
Andrew Medichini—AP Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 15, 2015

Pope Francis has been credited with having helped the U.S. and Cuba reach their historic rapprochement

(VATICAN CITY) — Pope Francis is considering adding a stop in Cuba to his U.S. trip in September but no decision has been made, the Vatican said Friday.

Francis has been credited with having helped the United States and Cuba reach their historic rapprochement by writing to the leaders of both countries and having the Vatican host their delegations for the final negotiations.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis “is considering the idea of a Cuba leg” but that discussions with Cuba are at an early stage. He said it’s too early to say that a decision has been taken or that there is an operational plan underway.

The possibility of a Cuban stop was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Francis is scheduled to visit three U.S. cities in the last week of September. He will address Congress and meet with President Barack Obama at the White House, address the U.N. in New York and attend a church rally for families in Philadelphia.

If a Cuba stop is confirmed on either end of the U.S. trip, Francis would become the third pope to visit the island nation after the historic 1998 visit of St. John Paul II during which he said Cuba should “open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI followed up with a 2012 trip during which he voiced the Vatican’s long-standing position that the U.S. embargo was unjust and only hurt the most vulnerable on the island.

Francis also has spoken out against the U.S. embargo while also condemning socialism.

Francis’ personal intervention in the U.S.-Cuban thaw was one of the most tangible signs that he wants the Vatican to be a greater player in international diplomacy. A more controversial intervention was his recent declaration that the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a century ago was “genocide.”

TIME Cuba

Cubans Hail Removal From U.S. List of State Terrorism Sponsors

A man drives his taxi past a Cultural Center with the word "Cuba" on it, in Havana, Cuba,, April 14, 2015
Desmond Boylan—AP A man drives his taxi past a Cultural Center in Havana on April 14, 2015

The removal heals a decades-old insult to Cuba's national pride and will lead to restoring diplomatic ties

(HAVANA) — Cuban officials and ordinary citizens alike hailed the island’s removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, saying the move by President Barack Obama heals a decades-old insult to national pride and clears the way to swiftly restore diplomatic relations.

“The Cuban government recognizes the president of the United States’ just decision to take Cuba off a list in which it should never have been included,” Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, said Tuesday night.

Cuban and U.S. foreign-policy experts said the two governments appeared to have taken a major leap toward the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington after four months of complex and occasionally frustrating negotiations.

“This is important because it speaks to Obama’s desire to keep moving forward,” said Esteban Morales, a political science professor at the University of Havana. “Now there are no political obstacles. What remains are organizational and technical problems, which can be resolved.”

In a message to Congress, Obama said Tuesday that Cuba’s government “has not provided any support for international terrorism” over the last six months and has given “assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”

Cuba will officially be removed from the terrorism list 45 days after the president’s message was sent to Congress. Lawmakers could vote to block the move during that window, though Obama would be all but certain to veto such a measure.

What remains to be seen in coming weeks is whether Cuba will allow U.S. diplomats to move around Cuba and maintain contacts with citizens including dissidents, the second point of contention in the negotiations on restoring full diplomatic relations.

Cuba is highly sensitive to any indication the U.S. is supporting domestic dissent and that issue may prove considerably tougher than amending the terrorism list. The Obama administration made little pretense in recent years that it believed Cuba was supporting terrorism.

Cuba was put on the list in 1982 because of what the U.S. said were its efforts “to promote armed revolution by organizations that used terrorism.”

That included support for leftist guerrilla groups including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Basque separatist movement ETA in Spain. Cuba also sheltered black and Puerto Rican militants who carried out attacks in the United States. Among those was Joanne Chesimard, who was granted asylum by Fidel Castro after she escaped from a U.S. prison where she was serving a sentence for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973.

Cuba renounced direct support for militant groups years ago and is sponsoring peace talks between the FARC and Colombia’s government. Spain no longer appears to be actively seeking the return of inactive ETA members who may be in Cuba.

For Cubans, the terrorism list was a particularly charged issue because of the U.S. history of supporting exile groups responsible for attacks on the island, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger flight from Barbados that killed 73 people aboard. The attack was linked to Cuban exiles with ties to U.S.-backed anti-Castro groups, and both men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis Posada Carriles, lives to this day.

“It’s really good that they finally took us off the list even though the reality is that we never should have been there,” said Rigoberto Morejon, a member of the Cuban national fencing team who lost three training partners in the bombing. He added that the hoped “we can keep advancing in the re-establishment of relations.”

Beyond the emotional impact, the terrorism list hobbled Cuba’s ability to do business internationally.

A 1996 law that strips sovereign immunity from nations on the list that engage in extrajudicial killings exposed Cuba to huge judgments in U.S. courts when mainly Cuban-American families accused the Cuban government of responsibility for the deaths of loved ones, said Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in U.S. law on Cuba.

The perceived and real risks of doing business with a country on the list also made it highly difficult for Cuba to do business with foreign banks. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington has been forced to deal in cash since it lost its bank in the U.S. last year. The ability to reopen a U.S. bank account is one of Cuba’s most urgent demands in the negotiations to reopen embassies. While that decision falls to individual banks, removal from the list will make it easier.

The listing also prevented U.S. representatives at the World Bank and other global financial bodies from approving credit for Cuba, which is increasingly strapped for cash.

Obama’s decision was welcomed on the streets of Havana.

“Finally!” said Mercedes Delgado, a retired accountant. “The door’s opened a little more. That’s always good.”

TIME Cuba

Obama’s Move to Drop Cuba From Terror List Sets Up Showdown With Congress

PANAMA-AMERICAS-SUMMIT-CUBA-US-OBAMA-CASTRO
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, speaks during a meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City, Panama.

Four months after promising to review Cuba's place on the terrorism list, Obama aims to remove the main obstacle to reopening a Havana embassy

President Obama formally moved on Tuesday to remove Cuba from the short, brutish list of states supporting terrorism. The technical finding — that Havana had not offered material support to terrorists in the previous six months — is likely to trigger the first substantial political challenge to Obama’s decision to end the half-century of U.S. efforts to isolate the regime that has ruled Cuba since 1962. By law Congress has 45 days to pass a joint resolution blocking the change, a challenge that anti-Castro lawmakers and Republican critics indicated they would take up. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen promptly declared, “This unwise decision to remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list illustrates that the Obama Administration is willing to concede to the demands of the Castro brothers in order to set up an embassy in Cuba.”

Indeed, if the removal stands, Havana and Washington will likely reopen embassies in each other’s capitals in short order. The terrorism listing was the main obstacle in negotiations aimed at exchanging ambassadors, according to Cuban officials, who urged Obama to make good on his December vow to reconsider the designation. Last weekend at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, where President Raúl Castro heaped scorn on the American history of interference in Latin American affairs — and praise on Obama, whom Castro called “an honest man” — the Cuban leader offered thanks in advance for Obama’s efforts to remove the designation, which prevented many firms from doing business with Cuba, and Cuban diplomats from opening bank accounts in the U.S.

“They say we’re terrorists,” Raúl Castro said on Saturday, citing the 1982 State Department finding that Havana had provided aid and arms to guerrilla groups in Latin America and Africa. “And we indeed have acted in solidarity with many peoples that may be considered terrorists” from the viewpoint of “imperialism,” Castro added. But that support largely vanished with the end of the Cold War. The last State Department justification for Cuba’s place on the terrorism listing cited previous support for the leftist insurgent guerrillas known as FARC in Colombia and the regime’s sheltering of Basque separatists. But Havana is currently hosting peace talks between FARC and Colombia’s government, and some of the Basques have returned to Spain.

“Circumstances have changed since 1982, when Cuba was originally designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America,” the State Department said in a statement. “Our hemisphere, and the world, look very different today than they did 33 years ago.”

The meeting between U.S. and Cuban officials in Panama, where Cuba was for the first time attending the Summit of the Americas, ended on a hopeful note, with vows that the embassy negotiations would resume in Havana very soon. “Our embassy personnel have had to use cash for everything and that complicates matters,” one senior Cuban official told TIME. “Having us on the terrorist list is ridiculous, but being part of the list complicates our day-to-day operations.”

Cuban officials noted that there were serious differences in the hour-long talk between Castro and Obama on April 11, mostly about human rights and elections. But, like their American counterparts, the Cubans emphasized that despite the remaining differences the two countries could start cooperating in areas of shared concern, mainly international human trafficking, drug trafficking, cybercrimes, the environment, energy and health.

Being removed from the terrorism list would also open Cuba to investors deterred by the strict U.S. censures awaiting firms doing business with listed nations. “The removal of Cuba from the list works on two levels,” said Pedro Freyre, an internationalist law specialist at Akerman LLP in Miami. “As a symbol, Cuba is removed from the list of bad actors, which now only includes Syria, Sudan and Iran. On a practical level, the ability of U.S. financial institutions to consider transactions with Cuban institutions is now facilitated. The compliance burden of engaging in transactions with countries on the list has made banking with Cuba prohibitively risky up until now. We should begin to see some movement on that front.”

First, though, it has to get past Congress. Obama’s rapprochement with Havana defied the Miami-based lobby of Cuban exiles that long dominated, if not dictated, U.S. policy toward the island, and its strength on Capitol Hill has not been tested since the new policy was announced on Dec. 17. That lobby suffered a loss with the recent indictment of Robert Menendez, the Cuban-American U.S. Senator from New Jersey who was the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Policy Committee. But another opponent of rapprochement, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, yesterday announced that he is running for the Republican nomination for President. So it’s safe to say the issue will not die for lack of attention. — With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas / Panama City

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Removes Cuba From State Sponsor of Terror List

PANAMA-AMERICAS-SUMMIT-CUBA-US-OBAMA-CASTRO
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, speaks during a meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City, Panama.

The countries still on the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria

(WASHINGTON) — The White House says President Barack Obama is removing Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a key step in President Barack Obama’s bid to normalize relations between the two countries.

The White House says on Twitter that Obama has submitted to Congress required reports and certifications indicating his intent to take Cuba off the list.

Obama made the final decision following a State Department review of Cuba’s presence on the list.

The U.S. has long since stopped actively accusing Cuba of supporting terrorism.

Cuba was one of four countries on the U.S. list of nations accused of repeatedly supporting global terrorism. The countries still on the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Obama announced in December that the U.S. and Cuba were ending a half-century of hostilities.

Read next: Cuba on the Cusp

TIME Cuba

Obama and Castro Make History With Panama Meeting

Cuban President Raul Castro speaks during a meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center in Panama City, on April 11, 2015.
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images Cuban President Raul Castro speaks during a meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center in Panama City, on April 11, 2015.

"It was time to try something new"

(PANAMA CITY) — President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro sat down together Saturday in the first formal meeting of the two country’s leaders in a half-century, pledging to reach for the kind of peaceful relationship that has eluded their nations for generations.

In a small conference room in a Panama City convention center, the two sat side by side in a bid to inject fresh momentum into their months-old effort to restore diplomatic ties. Reflecting on the historic nature of the meeting, Obama said he felt it was time to try something new and to engage with both Cuba’s government and its people.

“What we have both concluded is that we can disagree with a spirit of respect and civility,” Obama said. “And over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”

Castro, for his part, said he agreed with everything Obama had said — a stunning statement in and of itself for the Cuban leader. But he added the caveat that they had “agreed to disagee” at times. Castro said he had told the Americans that Cuba was willing to discuss issues such as human rights and freedom of the press, maintaining that “everything can be on the table.”

“We are disposed to talk about everything — with patience,” Castro said in Spanish. “Some things we will agree with, and others we won’t.”

MORE: Obama Pivots to Latin America With Cuba in Mind

Not since 1958 have a U.S. and Cuban leader convened a substantial meeting; at the time, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and Fulgencio Batista in charge in Cuba. But relations quickly entered into a deep freeze amid the Cold War, and the U.S. spent decades trying to either isolate or actively overthrow the Cuban government.

In a stroke of coincidence, Eisenhower’s meeting with Batista in 1958 also took place in Panama, imbuing Saturday’s session between Obama and Castro with a sense of having come full circle.

The historic gathering played out on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, which this year included Cuba for the first time. Although the meeting wasn’t publicly announced in advance, White House aides had suggested the two leaders were looking for an opportunity to meet while in Panama and to discuss the ongoing efforts to open embassies in Havana and Washington, among other issues.

At the start of their hour-long meeting, Obama acknowledged that Cuba, too, would continue raising concerns about U.S. policies — earning a friendly smirk from Castro. Obama described the sit-down later as “candid and fruitful” and said he and Castro were able to speak about their differences in a productive way.

Even still, raw passions were on vivid display earlier in the day when Castro, in a meandering, nearly hour-long speech to the summit, ran through an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the U.S. dating back more than a century.

Then, in an abrupt about face, he apologized for letting his emotions get the best of him. He said many U.S. presidents were at fault for that troubled history — but that Obama isn’t one of them.

“I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution,” Castro said through a translator, noting that Obama wasn’t even born when the U.S. began sanctioning the island nation. “I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”

Obama agreed.

“The Cold War has been over for a long time,” he said. “And I’m not interested in having battles frankly that started before I was born.”

The flurry of diplomacy kicked off Wednesday when Obama and Castro spoke by phone — only the second known call between U.S. and Cuban presidents in decades. It continued Friday evening when Obama and Castro traded handshakes and small talk at the summit’s opening ceremonies, setting social media abuzz with photos and cellphone video.

Obama and Castro sent shockwaves throughout the hemisphere in December when they announced the plan for rapprochement, and their envoys have spent the ensuing months working through thorny issues such as sanctions, the re-opening of embassies and the island nation’s place on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Although earlier in the week Obama suggested a decision to remove Cuba from the list was imminent, he declined to take that step Saturday, citing the need to study a recently completed State Department review. Lawmakers briefed on that review have said it resulted in a recommendation that Cuba be delisted.

Removal from the terror list is a top priority for Castro because it would not only purge a stain on Cuba’s pride, but also ease its ability to conduct simple financial transactions.

“Yes, we have conducted solidarity with other peoples that could be considered terrorism — when we were cornered, when we were strongly harassed,” Castro conceded earlier Saturday. “We had no other choice but to give up or to fight back.”

Yet Obama’s delay in delisting Cuba comes as the U.S. seeks concessions of its own — namely, the easing of restrictions on American diplomats’ freedom of movement in Havana and better human rights protections. Obama met with Cuban dissidents Friday at a civil society forum, and on Saturday, he said the U.S. would continue pressing Cuba on issues like democracy and human rights.

“We have very different views about how society should be organized,” Obama told reporters just before returning to Washington.

A successful detente would form a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. But it’s an endeavor he can’t undertake alone: Only Congress can fully lift the onerous U.S. sanctions regime on Cuba and there are deep pockets of opposition in the U.S. to taking that step.

As he sat down with the American president, Castro observed that nothing is truly static. Today’s profound disagreements could turn into areas of consensus tomorrow.

“The pace of life at the present moment in the world,” he said, “it’s very fast.”

___

Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Darlene Superville and Nancy Benac in Washington contributed to this report.

TIME Cuba

Cuban President Raul Castro Says Obama ‘Is an Honest Man’

Cuba's President Raul Castro (L) stands with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama before the inauguration of the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City, April 10, 2015.
Reuters Cuba's President Raul Castro (L) stands with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama before the inauguration of the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City, April 10, 2015.

"President Obama had no responsibility for this"

(PANAMA CITY)—President Barack Obama declared his refusal to refight the Cold War battles of the past on Saturday while Cuban President Raul Castro rallied to his defense, absolving Obama of fault for the U.S. blockade in a stunning reversal of more than 50 years of animosity between the United States and Cuba.

Castro, in a meandering, nearly hour-long speech to the Summit of the Americas, ran through an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the U.S. dating back more than a century—a vivid display of how raw passions remain over American attempts to undermine Cuba’s government.

Then, in an abrupt about face, he apologized for letting his emotions get the best of him. He said many U.S. presidents were at fault for that troubled history — but that Obama isn’t one of them.

“I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution,” Castro said through a translator, noting that Obama wasn’t even born when the U.S. began sanctioning the island nation. “I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”

In a remarkable vote of confidence from a Cuban leader, Castro added: “In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man.”

Castro and Obama were expected to meet later Saturday on the sidelines of the summit — the first substantial meeting between a U.S. and Cuban president in more than five decades. The flurry of diplomacy was aimed at injecting fresh momentum into their previously announced plan to restore normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Speaking just before Castro, Obama acknowledged that deep differences between their countries would persist. Yet he said he was uninterested in getting bogged down in ideology, instead casting the thaw in relations as an opening to create “more opportunities and resources for the Cuban people.”

“The United States will not be imprisoned by the past,” President Barack Obama said. “We’re looking to the future.”

Raising the stakes even higher for the two leaders was mounting speculation that Obama would use the occasion of the summit taking place in Panama to announce his decision to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a gesture that for Cuba holds both practical and symbolic value.

The U.S. long ago stopped accusing Cuba of conducting terrorism, and Obama has signaled that he’s ready to take Cuba off the list. On Thursday, he suggested an announcement was imminent when he revealed that the State Department had completed its lengthy review of the designation.

Obama arrived at the summit Saturday morning for a day of marathon meetings with leaders from across the Western Hemisphere, gathered around a massive oval table with two birds of peace in the middle. He was also to take questions from reporters before returning to Washington.

A successful relaunch of U.S.-Cuba relations would form a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. But it’s an endeavor he can’t undertake alone: Only Congress can fully lift the onerous U.S. sanctions regime on Cuba, and there are deep pockets of opposition in the U.S. to taking that step.

TIME Cuba

Obama Pivots to Latin America With Cuba on His Mind

Cuban President Raul Castro (2-R) and US President Barack Obama (L) shaking hands as Castro's grandson and bodyguard Raul Rodriguez Castro (2-L), Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (C) and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon (R) look on, moments before the opening ceremony of the VII Americas Summit, in Panama City on April 10, 2015.
AFP/Getty Images Cuban President Raul Castro (2-R) and US President Barack Obama (L) shaking hands as Castro's grandson and bodyguard Raul Rodriguez Castro (2-L), Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (C) and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon (R) look on, moments before the opening ceremony of the VII Americas Summit, in Panama City on April 10, 2015.

Obama and Castro share the limelight at summit of the hemisphere that usually gets half a loaf

The pivot to Asia may not have worked out terribly well, but spending spring break in Panama City turns out to be a welcome change of pace for President Obama. Every president says he’s going to pay more attention to Latin America, then ends up taking the region largely for granted while immersed in tar babies like the Middle East, which re-asserted itself with a vengeance after Obama’s heralded 2013 attempt to spend more time on China and Asia.

But the historic rapprochement with Cuba has brought breathless attention to, of all things, the Summit of the Americas, a largely ceremonial, traditionally moribund gathering of the leaders of the Organization of American States, the 35 countries of North and South America. The prospect of Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro — realized at the Friday night official opening of the Summit, and confirmed by a statement from the National Security Council —made irresistibly personal the end of more than a half-century of official enmity, in a setting that let the entire hemisphere share the spotlight. (The White House confirmed on Friday that Obama had telephoned the Cuban leader.) Latin America may be staggering economically, and many of its prominent leaders tattooed by corruption scandals, but this weekend, at least, no one was pretending there was anything even remotely bigger at hand on foreign policy than the reunion of Washington and Havana.

The opening with Cuba animated the otherwise bland presentation to CEOs that was Obama’s first event in Panama City. “We want to congratulate you on your policy towards Cuba,” the moderator told the American President, to a round of applause. Obama himself seemed caught up in the energy at his next event, a speech to civil society groups. “I’m pleased to have Cuba represented with us, for the very first time,” Obama said, of Havana’s presence at the summit, from which it was barred (at Washington’s insistence) between 1962 and 2009.

He then delivered an ardent appeal for ordinary citizens to involve themselves in public policy, citing his debt to the American civil rights movement for the changes that led to his own historic election. Obama brought up Cuba again, asserting that the U.S. goal was not to “impose” change on the island but to empower Cubans to improve their own lives.

The loudest applause, however, followed Obama’s statement that, “The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past.” As the applause continued, he held up a finger. “But we have to be very clear,” he said, that U.S. support for groups who “spoke truth to power” should be viewed as altruistic rather than hegemonic. “We have a debt to pay, because the voices of ordinary people made us better,” Obama concluded. “That’s a debt I want to pay in this hemisphere and around the world.”

Resentment over the United States’ sometimes heavy-handed history in the hemisphere remains one of the engines of politics in the region. Anti-Americanism has proved a handy cudgel for leaders such as Nicolas Maduro, the embattled Venezuelan president who was a protege of the late, and much more effective Hugo Chavez. Venezuela has been a huge patron of Cuba, and Maduro arrived at the summit with a petition signed by several million Venezeulans protesting the threatening language in a recent Obama executive order imposing sanctions on Maduro officials implicated in abusing protesters and political opponents. Maduro’s first stop in Panama City was a memorial to the more than 500 civilians killed in the 1989 U.S. invasion of the city. He was greeted with chants of “Maduro, stick it to the Yankee!”

Just so the U.S. still knows where it is.

TIME Cuba

Obama, Castro to Come Face to Face Amid Bid to Restore Ties

US President Barack Obama makes his way to board Air Force One upon departure from Kingston, Jamaica to Panama on April 9, 2015.
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images US President Barack Obama makes his way to board Air Force One upon departure from Kingston, Jamaica to Panama on April 9, 2015.

President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro will attend the Summit of the Americas on Friday

(PANAMA CITY) — As leaders from across the Western Hemisphere gather Friday in Panama, all eyes will be on two presidents: Barack Obama and Raul Castro, whose expected encounter at the Summit of the Americas will mark a historic moment as the U.S. and Cuba seek to restore ties they abandoned decades ago.

Americans and Cubans alike can recall just how deep the animosity between their countries ran during the Cold War, when even a casual, friendly exchange between their leaders would have been unthinkable. So while Obama and Castro have no formal meetings scheduled together, even a brief handshake or hallway greeting will be scrutinized for signs of whether the two nations are really poised to put their hostile pasts behind them.

Obama and Castro cross paths at the Summit of the Americas in the throes of a delicate diplomatic experiment: the renewal of formal relations between countries that haven’t had any in more than 50 years.

Even their arrival Thursday evening seemed steeped in symbolism: Obama, after arriving in Panama City, was whisked via helicopter to his waiting motorcade at an airport former known as Howard Air Force Base, from which the U.S. launched its 1989 invasion of Panama.

Castro’s plane landed on the tarmac minutes later, missing Obama only briefly — two world leaders passing warily in the night.

Four months ago, Obama and Castro announced their intention to restore diplomatic relations, beginning a painstaking process that has brought to the surface difficult issues that have long fed in to the U.S.-Cuban estrangement. Hopes of reopening embassies in Havana and Washington before the summit failed to materialize. The U.S. is still pushing Cuba to allow more freedom of movement for its diplomats, while Cuba wants relief from a sanctions regime that only Congress can fully lift.

Yet in the days before this year’s Summit of the Americas — the first to include Cuba — both leaders sought to set a productive and optimistic tone for their highly anticipated encounter. While in Jamaica on Wednesday, Obama signaled that he will soon act to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, removing a stigma that has been a source of friction for Havana.

Obama’s move could come within days.

“We don’t want to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said Wednesday in Kingston, Jamaica, before flying to Panama City. “When something doesn’t work for 50 years, you don’t just keep on doing it. You try something new.”

In another sign of engagement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met privately in Panama on Thursday — the highest-level meeting between the two governments in decades. The U.S. said the meeting was lengthy and that the leaders agreed to keep working to address unresolved issues.

On Friday, Obama was to meet with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and other Central American leaders. He planned to speak at a forum of CEOs before joining other leaders for dinner at Panama Viejo, home to archaeological ruins dating to the 1500s. A visit to the Panama Canal was also possible.

In a nod to lingering U.S. concerns about human rights and political freedoms, Obama was also attend a forum bringing together both dissidents and members of the Cuban political establishment.

TIME Cuba

How Obama Is Readying the Way to Meet Castro

The U.S. prepares to remove Cuba from the terror list, paving the way for normalized relations

The United States is not hosting the Summit of the Americas; the meeting of Organization of American States members convenes on Friday in Panama City. But the Obama administration has spent the days leading up to it in a flurry of straightening, smoothing and generally endeavoring to assure that things go smoothly—especially for the newest guest: Cuba.

On Wednesday, Obama received a long-awaited report from the State Department on whether Cuba should be removed from the list of states supporting terrorism. Speaking in Jamaica, where he stopped on Thursday en route to Panama, Obama said he cannot act on the report until other executive agencies review it, but he has repeatedly made it clear that he believes Cuba no longer belongs on the terror list with Iran, Sudan and Syria. That in turn should clear the way for Havana and Washington to re-open embassies. A Cuban official last month told TIME the negotiations over exchanging ambassadors and more fully normalizing relations had stalled over Havana’s inclusion on the terror list.

Meanwhile, a senior State Department official made a surprise visit to Venezuela, which has been Cuba’s strongest supporter, and a target of sharp criticism from the U.S., which recently slapped sanctions on seven senior officials for abusing protestors and opposition leaders. And while no explanation was offered for the discreet visit on Tuesday by Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a veteran diplomat who holds the title of State Department counselor, the White House has been making it clear that it is not looking to escalate tensions with Caracas, where President Nicolas Maduro has capitalized on the language contained in the executive order announcing the sanctions (and on Tuesday promoted two of the sanctioned officials).

“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. The language in the order declaring Venezuela to be even worse—”an unusual and extraordinary threat”—was, Rhodes said, boilerplate legalese not intended to make an enemy state of the fourth-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States. “Completely pro forma,” Rhodes said.

And so the way is smoothed and the air freshened for the kind of meeting both Washington and Havana had in mind on Dec. 17, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro jointly announced they would renew relations after half a century of estrangement. The men shook hands at the December 2013 funeral of Nelson Mandela, and spoke by phone to cement the December announcement. But the Summit in Panama has been held out as the venue that would showcase the countries’ long-awaited rapprochement.

“In general, but particularly at this summit, symbolism matters,” says Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Castro’s presence is news in itself—this is the first time Cuba has attended an OAS summit since it was suspended in 1962, following its embrace of the Soviet Union. Castro stayed away even after the suspension was lifted in 2009, as Latin American countries rallied around the country the United States had tried to isolate for so long, and with steadily diminishing results. By the time of December’s announcement, Rhodes noted, U.S. policy on Cuba was having the perverse effect of isolating Washington, not the other way around.

So removing Cuba as a polarizing issue should help relations across Latin America, O’Neil says. “For so many years, this U.S.-Cuba standoff has been an overriding difficulty with all sorts of countries, not just the ones we have chronic difficulties with like Venezuela,” says O’Neil. And if Venezuela appears poised to replace Cuba as an polarizing topic, the State Department outreach may serve to temper that, taking Maduro almost instantly up on his reported willingness to smooth out relations with Washington rather than escalate. “The worry here is that all the other good change with Cuba might be overshadowed by Venezuela,” says O’Neil.

Not all see the change with Cuba as good, of course. Polls show a majority of Americans and almost every Cuban favors the opening, but much of the Cuban exile community based in south Florida oppose the reconciliation, and the anti-Castro titans of Congress warn that they will try to block any effort to remove it from the terror list. Passions run high—and in Panama City exploded into fisticuffs when pro-Castro and anti-Castro protestors encountered one another Wednesday in front of the Cuban embassy. A video of the brawl, with grown men struggling to both land blows and hold their sports coats, might be the cartoon version Clauswitz’s observation that war is a continuation of politics by other means.

— With reporting from Dolly Mascarenas in Panama City

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