President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raúl Castro held the first meeting between the two countries' leaders in more than 50 years on Saturday, in a historic event that heralds a new era in relations between the former Cold War foes.
In a highly anticipated move, the two men sat down together on the fringes of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City. It capped a visit to the Panamanian capital that had already seen a handshake between the pair and words of rapprochement from both.
Speaking at the brief get-together, Obama heralded it as "obviously an historic meeting." He said that after 50 years of a policy that had not worked, "it was time to try something new."
Acknowledging that significant differences between Cuba and the U.S. still existed, he added, "Over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship."
Castro said he agreed with his U.S. counterpart, adding, "We are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient, very patient."
Earlier, around an oval table with some 30 other regional leaders attending the event, Castro had praised Obama as an “honest man,” distancing him from previous leaders in Washington. “Every U.S. president before him is to blame” for making Cuba suffer under the blockade of the island, he said.
The meeting between Castro and Obama follows a dramatic shift in U.S. policy announced in December. Signaling a move toward normalizing relations and reopening the U.S.'s long-shut embassy in Havana and ending an embargo that has crippled Cuba's economy, the president acknowledged then that Washington's approach was "outdated."
Some easing of specific sanctions have followed, but the trade embargo against the island can be overturned only by the Republican-controlled Congress.
Obama's reset on relations with Havana also included a review into the U.S. designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
There had been expectations that Obama might use Saturday's meeting to announce a decision to remove Cuba from the list.
On Thursday, Obama suggested an announcement was imminent when he said that the State Department's lengthy review of the designation was finally complete.
The U.S. has long ago stopped accusing Cuba of conducting terrorism, and Obama has indicated that he is ready to take Cuba off the list.
Mending ties with Cuba could form a cornerstone in the foreign policy legacy for Obama, with Latin America a rare bright spot for the president.
But Obama, a Democrat, might face a degree of backlash from political opponents in Washington. He has faced some criticism in Congress over the dramatic shift on Cuba policy, with some accusing him of giving up too much without first insisting on political reform on the island.
With wire services.