President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met Saturday in Panama, in a further show of warming relations between the two nations.
Obama said it was “a historic meeting,” at a press conference following the hour-long encounter on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas regional gathering.
“I think that after 50 years of policy that had not changed on the part of the United States, it was my belief that it was time to try something new, that it was important for us to engage more directly with the Cuban government and the Cuban people,” Obama said.
Cuba and the U.S. had previously held three rounds of talks aimed at reestablishing relations, the most recent of which concluded in the middle of March without any indication from either side about progress on key issues.
“Already we’ve seen majorities of the American people and the Cuban people respond positively to this change,” Obama said, acknowledging differences between the two states.
Obama pointed out that the two governments would try to engage concerns around democracy and human rights.
He added that the two governments can disagree about many issues but it would be “with the spirit of respect and civility.”
“Some of our immediate tasks include normalizing diplomatic relations and ultimately opening an embassy in Havana, and Cuba being able to open an embassy in Washington, D.C.,” Obama said.
While Washington wanted its embassy in Cuba to be reopened in time for the summit, Cuba first asked to be removed from the U.S. terrorism list, which prevents those listed on it from accessing the U.S. banking system and businesses.
“We would obviously need to have sufficient capability for diplomats to move around the country,” a senior U.S. official said.
The official also said there are roadblocks before talks such as making it possible for a Cuban embassy in Washington to have access to banking in the U.S. and restrictions on diplomats.
Castro, during the press conference said that he agreed with all Obama noted, adding that his government is ready to discuss any issue including human rights and freedom of press.
“But when I say that I agree with everything that the president has just said, I include that we have agreed to disagree,” he said. “No one should entertain illusions. It is true that we have many differences.”
A senior U.S. official said that the meeting between the two leaders was quite productive.
The official added that Obama informed Castro about the process regarding the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror.
He told his Cuban counterpart that the interagency review, is near or is completed and he would be making a decision in the “coming days,” according to the official.
Castro did not extend an invitation to Obama to visit Havana during this meeting, the official said.
The Cold War foes announced last December that they would work to normalize relations.
In a show of good faith, the U.S. and Cuba swapped prisoners, including American Alan Gross from a Cuban prison where he was held for five years.