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In Jamaica, Obama Says Engaging Cuba Is More Powerful Than Isolation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're also tracking news from Central America. This weekend, President Obama is attending an annual summit of political leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere. And for the first time ever, Cuba's president has also been invited. This sets the stage for a face-to-face encounter between the two leaders as decades of official hostility come to an end. President Obama told an audience in Jamaica yesterday that engagement with Cuba is a more powerful force than isolation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government. But we don't want to be imprisoned by the past. When something doesn't work for 50 years, you don't just keep on doing it. You try something new.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Now he goes on to the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, which is where we find NPR's Scott Horsley to begin our coverage. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How big a deal is it that the presidents - both presidents - are at this summit, that President Castro came?

HORSLEY: This is a breakthrough for Cuba. It's also a big breakthrough for the United States. For a long time now, America's effort to isolate Cuba has had the perverse effect of isolating the United States. Other countries in the hemisphere had decided well before President Obama's diplomatic overture back in December that Cuba would be included in this summit. In fact, had Obama not taken the steps he did, the U.S. might have been the one on the outside looking in. Instead, Obama's getting a boost for his peacemaking efforts. Here's the prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, of Jamaica, where Obama stopped off yesterday on his way to Panama City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRIME MINISTER PORTIA SIMPSON-MILLER: We're very happy to say to you, Mr. President, you are on the right side of history.

INSKEEP: And I suppose we can watch some of that history being made this weekend. But isn't there a long way to go?

HORSLEY: There is. President Obama relaxed some of the travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. But only Congress can fully lift the U.S. embargo. And there are also stumbling blocks as the two countries try to reopen embassies. One is that Cuba is still listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism. Now, the State Department has been weighing for some time now whether to drop Cuba from that list. And yesterday, Obama gave a bit of a tease, saying the State Department had completed its review. But he didn't say what it had decided. Dropping Cuba from the terrorism list is the kind of thing you might want to announce at a summit like this. On the other hand, it could be the kind of thing that the administration keeps as a bargaining chip as it tries to win concessions from Cuba on other issues, such as freedom for U.S. diplomats to work with dissidents there.

INSKEEP: Scott, what about Cuba's ally Venezuela, which has worsening relations with United States even as relations with Cuba get better?

HORSLEY: Yeah, Venezuela's leftist leader Nicolas Maduro has been on the ropes lately. But the administration inadvertently threw him a political lifeline last month when it ordered sanctions against a number of Venezuelan officials. The problem was the boilerplate language that the White House used, which was really over the top. It declared an emergency. It called Venezuela a threat to U.S. security. No one in the White House really sees Venezuela that way. But it has allowed Maduro to paint the United States as a kind of bogeyman responsible for all of his country's problems, much the same way that Cuba did for decades. Railing against Obama is good politics for Maduro. Scholar Richard Feinberg of UC San Diego tells us, though, the question is how much of a stink Maduro will be able to make at this summit.

RICHARD FEINBERG: Maduro will have his say, without a doubt. But, you know, there are 35 countries. Whether or not it dominates the summit is an issue largely for the other Latin Americans to decide. And my guess is the Latin Americans in general will not want to follow Maduro, you know, over the cliff.

HORSLEY: Still, it seems the White House has eliminated the Cuban distraction at this summit. And it may have accidentally substituted another.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley, there for all the distractions and other things. Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's in Panama City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.