The two met Saturday afternoon on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, shortly after their back-to-back addresses to other regional leaders. The two leaders’ informal meeting was the first since Obama announced in December his intention to normalize relations with Havana.
There had been no face-to-face discussion between the two countries’ top leaders in more than five decades.
“This is obviously a historic meeting,” Obama said. “The history between the United States and Cuba is obviously complicated, and over the years, a lot of mistrust has developed.” After 50 years of policy that had not worked, he said, “it was time for us to try something new.”
That would include opening embassies in Washington and Havana, the president said.
Obama acknowledged that deep and significant differences remain between the two countries. He said the U.S. would speak out for democracy and human rights, and Cuba would raise concerns about U.S. policy as well.
“Over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries,” the U.S. president said.
As for Castro, he told Obama he agreed with all the points he’d made and said he was open to discussion, but “we need to be patient, very patient.
“We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow,” he said.
The Cuban leader said his government is willing to discuss all issues, including human rights if those discussions are respectful.
After Castro spoke, the men stood and shook hands.
At a late-afternoon news conference, Obama said that his trip to Panama City for his third Summit of the Americas reflected a new era of U.S. engagement in the region.
He said that part of his talks with Castro involved how to promote greater opportunities for the Cuban people, and how access to education could be expanded throughout Latin America.
“We are focused on the future and on what we can build and achieve together,” he said.
In response to a question, Obama said his outreach to Havana had majority support in the United States and overwhelming support in Cuba. And with regard to the U.S. removal of Cuba from Washington’s state sponsors of terrorism list, he said he wanted to study recommendations from State Department officials “before we announce publicly what the policy outcome will be.”
Obama called his talks with Castro — two previous visits by phone and Saturday’s personal encounter — “candid and fruitful.”
“We are able to speak honestly about our differences and concerns in ways that offer the possibility” of taking bilateral relations in a different direction, he said.
“What has been clear through the summit,” he said, “is the unanimity that the leaders of Latin America think this is the right thing to do. They see the possibility of a more constructive dialogue that ultimately benefits the Cuban people. I am cautiously optimistic that, over coming months and years, this will lead to a different future for the Cuban people.”
Asked whether his outreach ended the policy of regime change in Cuba, Obama said: “We are not in the business of regime change. We are in the business of making sure the Cuban people have freedom and chance to shape their own lives.”
Addresses to summit
In his speech earlier to summit leaders, Castro delved into a long, impassioned history of Cuban grievances against the United States, but stopped to apologize to the U.S. leader, calling him an “honest man” and absolving him of responsibility for the long-standing U.S. embargo on Cuba and other actions taken under previous administrations.
“I have told President Obama myself that I am very emotional when I talk about the revolution,” he said. “I apologize, because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”
The Cuban president spoke for 48 minutes, much of that time delivering a stinging indictment of what he said was U.S. intervention in the island nation and the rest of Latin America.
But he praised Obama’s efforts to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which he said should have never included his country.
The terrorists, Castro said, are those like the CIA operative who participated in the capture and interrogation of executed leftist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who died in 1967 in Bolivia in a failed attempt to lead a guerrilla uprising.
Cold War ‘over for a long time’
Addressing the regional gathering of leaders just before Castro, Obama said he was focused on the future and was not caught up in ideology.
“The Cold War has been over for a long time, and I’m not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born,” he said.
Obama said he had called on Congress to begin work to end the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, a move Castro welcomed.
The president said re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba would enhance opportunities for the island nation, the United States and beyond.
“This shift in U.S. policy represents a turning point for our entire region,” he said.
As the two-day summit opened Friday evening, Obama and Castro shook hands, a gesture widely seen as symbolic of their effort to bury decades of animosity.
It has been two years since their first handshake, which came at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Cuba’s status revisited
Obama announced Thursday in Jamaica that a State Department review of Cuba’s status has been completed and said he was awaiting a final recommendation.
Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Foreign Relations panel, said the State Department had recommended removing Cuba from the terrorism list. “The United States has a unique opportunity to begin a fresh chapter with Cuba,” he said.
The president previously signaled he would be willing to drop the “state terrorism” label as part of normalizing relations with Cuba. The three other countries on the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.
The administration’s recent overtures to Cuba have drawn sharp rebuke from critics such as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a possible future presidential candidate. He objected to Obama’s likely meeting with Castro, calling the Cuban leader an “entrenched dictator,” the Associated Press reported.
“President Obama is truly writing new chapters in American foreign policy,” Graham said, according to AP. “Unfortunately, these latest chapters are ones of America and the values we stand for — human rights, freedom and democracy — in retreat and decline.”
Kerry and counterpart meet
The summit already has provided impetus for a meeting late Thursday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Cuban counterpart — the highest-level direct meeting in decades between the two governments
A senior State Department official said that Kerry’s talk with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was “very constructive” and that both sides “agreed they made progress.”(VOA)