Obama’s Trip to Panama Includes a Cuban Subplot

NYT FDJulie Hirschfeld Davis April 8, 2015

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Good Wednesday morning from Washington, where a short-lived power failure briefly shut down the government. Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago gets to keep his job after a runoff, while Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Jewish leaders to try and ease their concerns over a possible nuclear agreement with Iran. Representative Charles B. Rangel has recipe suggestions, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky hit the ground running after announcing his candidacy. President Obama begins a trip to Panama where he may or may not have a much-watched meeting with President Raúl Castro of Cuba.

President Obama on Wednesday embarks on a trip to Jamaica and to Panama where the formal agenda is summitry with Caribbean and Latin American leaders. But the powerful subtext will be the body language between him and President Raúl Castro of Cuba.

Four months after Mr. Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, he and Mr. Castro are likely to share a stage, a conference table, a “family photo” with attendees and potentially even a one-on-one meeting.

No such sit-down is scheduled at the Summit of the Americas, which opens on Friday in Panama City, United States officials said. But they strongly suggested that the Obama administration was ready to recommend removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would clear a major hurdle to the reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana.

Being removed from the list would clear what Cuba has complained is a major impediment to accessing the international banking system and, perhaps more important as Mr. Obama tries to turn the page on five decades of Cold War-era enmity, erase the stigma of being on a list that includes Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Mr. Obama strongly hinted in an interview this week with NPR that he was inclined to remove them, noting that the pertinent question was whether a country sponsors terrorism, “not do we agree with them on everything.”

The State Department must review the designation, a process which Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said was in “its final stages.”

If the State Department recommends removal, Mr. Obama would have to concur, and Congress would have 45 days to decide whether to block the move. But long before that, a first-ever meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro could begin to build momentum for the shift in relations.