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After Messy Start, U.S.-Cuba Handshake May Send Panama Summit To Smoother Finish

Presidencia de Panama

The Summit of the Americas kicks off Friday evening when the hemisphere’s heads of state inaugurate the two-day gathering in downtown Panama City. But while there a host of issues to discuss, all eyes are on just two guys: President Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

The week in Panama got off to a messy start when some Cuban dissidents and exiles and a group of pro-government Cubans traded fisticuffs in front of the Cuban embassy on Wednesday. But despite that scuffle, Obama and Castro spoke by telephone before arriving in Panama. And the White House said the two are expected to sit down on Saturday for a historic face-to-face chat as part of their effort to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.

UPDATE: Obama and Castro had their handshake moment later Friday night after the summit inauguration ceremony.

The many Cubans attending the summit have very different views about that process.

"This means hope that the rules of the game might change in Cuba," said independent Cuban journalist Reinaldo Escobar, an editor at blogger Yoani Sanchez's online newspaper 14 y medio. "Maybe now being a dissident won’t automatically mean being a traitor."

Sergio Gomez, meanwhile, is the international editor for Cuba’s official communist newspaper Granma. His take: normalizing relations means Cuba’s decades of standing up to the U.S. paid off.

"You’ve been bullying us for the half century," said Gomez, "and that’s not a normal situation.”

This weekend Obama may also announce he’s removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.