PANAMA CITY (AFP) - Barack Obama and Raul Castro held the first face-to-face talks between US and Cuban leaders since 1956 in Panama on Saturday, vowing to pursue their historic effort to bury Cold War-era enmity.
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.
Obama also sought to calm tensions with another leftist nation and a Cuban ally, speaking briefly with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for the first time, telling him Washington did not seek to threaten Caracas.
The Obama-Castro meeting, which lasted 80 minutes, 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.
“This is obviously a historic meeting,” said Obama, who spoke first after they sat down in polished, wooden chairs for their talks on the sidelines of the 35-nation Summit of the Americas in Panama City.
“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, 83, broke into 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 said, Castro acknowledged that 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.”
When Castro said he hoped the US and Cuban delegations will listen to their presidents’ instructions, Obama laughed.
The two leaders, who had spoken on the phone in December and on Wednesday, shook hands again and reporters were ushered away for a closed-door discussion.
Obama told reporters later that the conversation was “candid and fruitful” and that he did not shy away from telling Castro that Washington would keep airing concerns about democracy and human rights.
They both had already made conciliatory speeches moments earlier during the summit, sitting at an oval table with some 30 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.
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 told the summit.
“The dialogue signals the end of the last Cold War battles in this hemisphere,” said Geoff Thale, Cuba expert at the Washington Office on Latin America policy forum. “But I don’t think that they will become best of friends overnight.”
During their private talks, Obama and Castro discussed the embassy negotiations and instructed their teams to swiftly resolve lingering issues, 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.
While Obama pointed to polls showing most Cubans and Americans back the diplomatic thaw, some in Congress and on 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,” fumed US Senator Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American Republican candidate.
VENEZUELA TENSIONS SURFACE
But as Obama sought to turn the page on Cold War-era tensions with Cuba, a spat with Venezuela also took the stage at the Americas summit.
Maduro criticised Obama, but the US leader had already left the room to head to a meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
“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.
After Maduro complained that Obama had ignored his pleas to hold talks since the Venezuelan leader was elected in 2013, it emerged that the two briefly spoke on the sidelines of the summit.
Obama “reiterated that our interest is not in threatening Venezuela, but in supporting democracy, stability and prosperity in Venezuela and the region,” said Katherine Vargas, a White House spokeswoman.
While Castro has taken Venezuela’s side in the dispute, he praised Obama for saying he did not really believe that Caracas posed a threat to the United States.
Maduro’s other leftist allies rallied behind him. “Our people will never again accept tutelage, meddling and intervention,” said Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa.