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Obama hails ‘turning point’ in Cuba relations after Castro talks

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meet on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas on April 11
US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meet on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas on April 11 AFP / Mandel Ngan

US President Barack Obama hailed a possible “turning point” in relations between the US and Cuba after holding historic face-to-face talks with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro in Panama on Saturday.


Describing their 80-minute private meeting on the sidelines of the 35-nation Summit of the Americas as "candid and fruitful", Obama said the two countries can now end the antagonism of the Cold War era.

"We are able to speak honestly about our differences and our concerns in ways that I think offer the possibility of moving the relationship between our two countries in a different and better direction," said the US leader.

The Obama-Castro meeting was the climax of their surprise announcement on December 17 that, after a year and a half of secret negotiations, they would seek to normalize relations that broke off in 1961.

Sitting together in a blue-carpeted room, Obama thanked Castro for his "spirit of openness and courtesy" during their interactions, while the communist leader stressed that the negotiations will require patience.

"This is obviously a historic meeting," said Obama, declaring that, after 50 years of failed US policies, "it was time for us to try something new".

"We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future," he said, adding that the immediate task was to reopen embassies.

Castro cracked a smile when Obama acknowledged that the two sides will continue to have differences on human rights and other issues.

After Obama spoke, the two men stood up and shook hands.

Saying he agreed with everything Obama stated, Castro said the two governments can still have differences but "with respect of the ideas of the others".

"We are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient, very patient," he said.

"We already expressed to some American friends in other occasions that we are willing to talk about everything."

Havana reacts to historic handshake between Obama and Castro

When Castro said he hoped the US and Cuban delegations would listen to their presidents' instructions, Obama laughed.

The two leaders, who had spoken on the phone in December and again on Wednesday, shook hands again before reporters were ushered away for the closed-door discussion to begin.

Work to do

Obama and Castro had already made conciliatory speeches moments earlier during the summit, sitting at an oval table with other regional leaders.

Addressing the leaders, Castro declared: "President Obama is an honest man."

Such words would have been unimaginable in the days that his brother, Fidel Castro, was at the helm from 1959 until an illness sidelined him in 2006.

Raul Castro was the first Cuban leader to attend the summit in its 21-year history.

But Obama and Castro acknowledged that the two countries still have work to do restore ties.

Obama and Castro discussed the embassy negotiations and instructed their teams to swiftly resolve lingering issues during their private talks, a senior US official said.

Castro mentioned his desire to see the end of the US embargo, which forbids most trade and American tourism to the island. Obama has urged the US Congress to end it.

Addressing a key Cuban demand, Obama told Castro that he would decide whether to recommend removing Cuba from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism in the "coming days," the official said.

But while Obama can continue to ease specific sanctions, the overall trade embargo against Cuba can be overturned only by the Republican-controlled Congress.

Polls show that support for a more collaborative relationship with Havana has grown steadily in recent years, even in the Cuban-American community that for decades fiercely opposed Fidel Castro and overwhelmingly opposed ties with Havana.

However, some in Congress and the 2016 presidential campaign trail oppose it.

"This president has shown he is willing to do what nine previous presidents of both parties would not: cave to a communist dictator in our own hemisphere," said US Senator Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American Republican candidate.


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