Castro hails 'honest man' Obama, says Cuba blockade not his fault
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Cuba's Raul Castro said US President Barack Obama was not to blame for the blockade of his country as both men heralded a new era of bilateral relations at a landmark Summit of the Americas on Saturday.
Cuba's leader offered effusive praise for Obama and his decision to restore ties with the communist island even as he catalogued more than a century of grievances against the United States.
"I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution," Castro said through a translator, noting that Obama wasn't even born when the US began sanctioning the island nation. "I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this."
To the applause of hemispheric leaders, Castro drew attention to Obama's modest origins, saying it was the source for his decision to turn a new page in relations with the former Cold War enemy.
Sitting around an oval table with some 30 other regional leaders in Panama City, Obama and Castro spoke one after the other in an unprecedented public exchange between the leaders of the Cold War-era foes.
"This shift in US policy represents a turning point for our entire region," Obama said. "The fact that President Castro and I are both sitting here today marks a historic occasion."
But both leaders acknowledged that the two countries, as they negotiate to restore diplomatic relations that broke off in 1961, will continue to have disagreements.
Obama cited the human rights situation in Cuba, while Castro renewed calls for the US Congress to lift a decades-old embargo.
"I think it's no secret, President Castro I'm sure would agree, that there will continue to be significant differences between our two countries," Obama said.
Taking their bid to restore diplomatic ties to a new level, Obama and Castro will have a discussion on the sidelines of the second and final day of the summit.
The two leaders already said hello late Friday, greeting each other and shaking hands -- a gesture rich in symbolism -- as other leaders looked on.it
The face-to-face talks will be the climax of their surprise announcement on December 17 that, after 18 months of secret negotiations, they would seek to normalize relations between their two nations.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos summed up the mood, saying "an old obstacle in relations between Latin America and North America is being removed."
The last time US and Cuban leaders met was in 1956, three years before Fidel Castro came to power.
The format of the meeting has yet to be confirmed, but Rhodes said the two leaders would likely talk about the negotiations to restore diplomatic ties as well as lingering disagreements.
Cuba has demanded to be removed from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism before embassies can reopen, noting that this has blocked the country's access to bank credit.
Castro told the summit that Obama was taking a "positive step" by reviewing his country's inclusion on the list.
The White House indicated that Obama was not yet ready to decide whether to remove Havana from the blacklist, but that it could not rule out an announcement in Panama.
"The potential removal from the list will represent the current US-Cuba relationship becoming more pragmatic," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, Americas analyst at US consultancy IHS Country Risk.
"But overall engagement will still be limited by the US embargo," he said.
Obama has urged the US Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba, which was imposed in 1962, barring most trade with the island as well as tourism.
Underscoring his increasing engagement with Latin America, Obama will also likely meet Colombia's Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who cancelled a US trip in 2013 over revelations of US spying against her.
But even as Obama seeks to turn the page on Cold War-era tensions, a new headache has come to the fore in the form of Venezuela.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Havana's main ally in the region, has vowed to present to Obama a petition with 13.4 million signatures urging him to lift sanctions against officials over an opposition crackdown.
The White House has sought to ease tensions ahead of the summit, saying it did not really believe that Venezuela posed a national security threat, as the sanctions document stated.
The sanctions have irritated other Latin American countries.
"The response has been forceful, rejecting the executive order and demanding its removal," Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa said. "Our people will never again accept tutelage, meddling and intervention."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
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