President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met Saturday afternoon for a historic face-to-face discussion, marking the first time leaders of the two nations have sat down together since the Cold War.
The meeting in Panama included staff from both sides and lasted at least an hour, officials said. Obama called the sit-down “obviously an historic meeting.”
After 50 years of policy that hadn’t worked in complex U.S.-Cuba relations, “it was time to try something new,” Obama said, referring to his administration’s announcement in December to restore diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba.
”We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future,” he said, as cameras clicked over and over again, capturing the two leaders sitting beside one another. “Over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”
He said he envisioned more commerce and interactions between the U.S. and Cuba, and an American embassy in Havana and a Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. But, he acknowledged, “there’s still going to be deep and significant differences between our governments.”
Obama and Castro are in Panama for the Summit of the Americas. While Cuba and the U.S. will always have their differences, better relations between the two countries will help the entire region, he said.
Castro said he agreed with Obama, but warned, “We need to be patient, very patient. Some things we will agree on, others we will disagree.”
“No one should entertain illusions. It is true that we have lots of differences. Our countries have a long and complicated history,” he said. “But we are willing to make progress in the way the president has described. We can develop friendship between our two peoples.”
Obama said earlier Saturday that he asked Congress to lift the embargo to Cuba, which Castro applauded, calling it a “courageous decision to get involved in this debate with Congress to put this to an end.”
On Friday, the two presidents shook hands and chatted, as anticipation mounted over Saturday’s talk.
Friday’s handshake between the two leaders was friendly and brief, and was the second time Obama and Castro had met. The first was in December 2013 for a three-second handshake during South African leader Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.
Some had speculated that Obama would use Saturday’s discussions as an opportunity to announce he was removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. While the U.S. stopped accusing Cuba of terrorism years ago, the State Department has not yet removed it from that list.
Being taken off not only would be a point of pride for Castro, it would also have financial benefits for Cuba, which has been under economic hardship since a U.S. embargo was first imposed in 1960.