US, Cuban leaders hold first talks in half-century

PANAMA CITY (AFP) - US President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro held unprecedented face-to-face talks in Panama on Saturday, ditching decades of Cold War-era antagonism in a historic effort to restore diplomatic ties.

In the first substantive talks between leaders of both nations since 1956, Obama thanked Castro for his “spirit of openness,” while the communist leader stressed that the negotiations will require patience.

The talks were the climax of their surprise announcement on Dec 17 that, after 18 months of secret negotiations, they would seek to normalise relations between their two nations.

“This is obviously a historic meeting,” said Obama, who spoke first after they sat down for their talks on the sidelines of the 35-nation Summit of the Americas.

Obama declared that, after 50 years of policies that had not worked, “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.

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

Saying he agreed with everything Obama said, Castro said the two government 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.

The two leaders had already made conciliator speeches moments earlier during the summit, sitting in an oval table with some 30 other regional leaders.

US-Cuban tensions have vexed Washington’s relations with the region for decades.

“This shift in US policy represents a turning point for our entire region,” Obama said.

As the US leader looked on, Castro declared: “President Obama is an honest man.”

DIFFERENCES REMAIN

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.

It was Cuba’s first time participating at the 21-year-old summit.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos summed up the mood, saying “an old obstacle in relations between Latin America and North America is being removed.”

US and Cuba diplomats have held negotiations to restore embassies since January.

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.

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.

VENEZUELA TENSIONS SURFACE

But as Obama sought to turn the page on Cold War-era tensions, US tensions with Venezuela also took the stage.

Obama left the room to head to a bilateral meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, before Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro spoke to criticise him.

“I respect you, but I don’t trust you, President Obama,” Maduro said.

He urged Obama to lift sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of committing human rights abuses. The order has particularly irritated Maduro because it calls Caracas a US national security threat.

“I am willing to talk with President Obama about this issue with respect and sincerity whenever he wants,” Maduro said.

Maduro said he has publicly and privately sought to speak with Obama ever since the Venezuelan leader was elected two years ago, but his US counterpart “never answered the messages that I sent him.”

The White House sought to ease tensions ahead of the summit, saying it did not really believe that Venezuela posed a national security threat.

Maduro’s leftist allies rallied behind him.

“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.”