'More Than A Handshake': How Upcoming Summit Could Impact U.S.-Cuba Thaw The Summit of the Americas is convening this week in Panama — and it's expected to feature a historic meeting between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

'More Than A Handshake': How Upcoming Summit Could Impact U.S.-Cuba Thaw

'More Than A Handshake': How Upcoming Summit Could Impact U.S.-Cuba Thaw

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The Summit of the Americas is convening this week in Panama, and it's expected to feature a historic meeting between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. Asistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson has been leading the normalization talks for the U.S., and as the summit approaches, she speaks with NPR's Melissa Block about the challenges facing the recent diplomatic thaw.


A historic meeting is expected this week. President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro will both be in Panama for the Summit of the Americas. And the White House says there will be many opportunities for the two leaders to talk for the first time in person about normalizing relations. This will be the first time Cuba is at the summit. And with the thaw in diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba announced in December, the terrain has shifted. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson has been leading normalization talks for the U.S., and she joins us for a preview of the summit. Welcome back to the program.

ROBERTA JACOBSON: Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: The White House says there is not a formal bilateral meeting planned between Presidents Obama and Castro, but do you expect that they'll have substantive discussions on the sidelines?

JACOBSON: Well, I certainly think they're going to have a lot of opportunities to interact. And given what we've been working on for the past few months, those interactions are likely to be substantive.

BLOCK: So more than a handshake.

JACOBSON: Oh, I would think so. You know, when you're overcoming 50 years of relationship and you're making a big change, I think it'll be more than a handshake.

BLOCK: Well, one key outstanding issue is whether the U.S. will take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The State Department is reviewing that. You've said you're at the end of that process. Has a Secretary of State Kerry made a recommendation to the White House on that?

JACOBSON: Well, you know, this is - the process ends up with the secretary sending something to the president and the president then making his decision before he sends it up to Congress, where it must sit in notification for 45 days before any decision to take them off or that to be the case becomes formal. And because we're in an internal part of the process before the president makes his decision, I don't think it's a really smart idea to discuss what part of that process we're in.

BLOCK: I've been looking at a quite critical editorial in today's Washington Post that says if Cuba is removed from that list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, that that would disregard, among other things, Cuba's illegal arms trading with North Korea and the sanctuary it provides American criminal Joanne Chesimard. And she is a - we should point out - a fugitive on the FBI's list of Most Wanted Terrorists. She was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper, was broken out of prison, fled to Cuba 30 years ago. In your view, do those facts rise to the level of state sponsorship of terrorism?

JACOBSON: I think it's very important that we be clear about acts of international terrorism and other behavior that we strongly disagree with, but that does not necessarily serve as part of that definition. We have been speaking with the Cuban government about the return of Joanne Chesimard for years. We want her returned. The issue of North Korea we were very active in at the United Nations on the Sanctions Committee. But that is not necessarily the same as sponsoring acts of international terrorism. So I think it's important to understand what is and is not part of that definition.

BLOCK: There are dissidents and opposition figures who are going to Panama for the summit. At least two of them have reported being detained at the airport when they arrived, at least temporarily. Will President Obama be meeting directly one-on-one with some of the Cuban dissidents - Cuban opposition figures - who will be in Panama during the summit?

JACOBSON: Well, I think President Obama will have an opportunity to meet with civil society activists from around the hemisphere. And I believe that will include some representatives from Cuba.

BLOCK: You call them civil society activists. I call them dissidents. Are we talking about the same group of people?

JACOBSON: I think we are.

BLOCK: Is there a reason you wouldn't call them dissidents?

JACOBSON: I'll be honest with you. I think the notion of them being dissidents is a kind of a negative connotation. My perception of these activists is that in the Cuban case, they may be opposed to the current government. But in general around the hemisphere, they're people who are seeking freedoms. So I tend not to call them dissidents in the same way that, I suppose, refuseniks in the Soviet Union was a negative term - one of honor in many ways, but a negative term. I see all of them as part of important voices for civil society, as I call it, throughout the hemisphere.

BLOCK: Secretary Jacobson, thanks for talking to us again.

JACOBSON: Thanks so much, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Roberta Jacobson. She's Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and she'll be at this week's Summit of the Americas in Panama, where President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are set to meet face-to-face.

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