WITH A cordial handshake, US president Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro have set the stage for a ground-breaking meeting on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, in what would be a remarkable display of reconciliation between the two nations.
The powerful symbolism of a substantial exchange between the leaders with the leadership of the Western Hemisphere gathered around them could signal progress.
Both sides are still working through nettlesome issues that would lead to the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana, the first stage in a new diplomatic relationship.
The first visual clues of an improved relationship - at least among leaders - came as Mr Obama and Mr Castro arrived at a Panama City convention centre for the summit’s opening ceremonies.
A reporter for a Venezuelan TV network posted video online showing the two greeting each other comfortably with multiple handshakes and extended small talk, while United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez looked on.
The White House said the interaction was informal and they did not engage in substantive conversation. The two men are expected to speak further later - the first extended conversation between the leaders of the US and Cuba in more than 50 years.
Mr Obama, speaking to a meeting of civil society groups, cast the move to end hostile relations as a triumph for the Cuban people.
“As the United States begins a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, we hope it will create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people,” he told the gathering, which included Cuban dissidents.
“Not because it is imposed by us, the United States, but through the talent and ingenuity and aspirations, and the conversations among Cubans from all walks of life so they can decide what the best course is for their prosperity.”
The White House was coy over the status of the State Department’s recommendation to remove Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terror. Removal is a top issue with Mr Castro because it would not only eliminate Cuba’s status as a pariah, but also ease Cuba’s ability to conduct simple financial transactions.
Nevertheless, the pace of activity over the terror list suggested that even if Mr Obama did not make an announcement, one would come soon.
The US-Cuban outreach entered a new, accelerated stage in recent days, with Mr Obama speaking with Mr Castro by phone on Wednesday and US secretary of state John Kerry holding a lengthy meeting with Mr Rodriguez.
The Cuban foreign ministry issued a brief account of the Kerry-Rodriguez meeting, saying they met for nearly three hours in a “respectful and constructive atmosphere”.
It was the highest level, face-to-face contact between officials from the two countries since the December 17 announcement that Washington and Havana would move to restore diplomatic relations severed in 1961.
Even as Washington talked up the historic shift toward Cuba, leftist leaders in Latin America took shots at the US in solidarity with Venezuela.
Barely off the plane, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro laid a wreath at a monument to victims of the US invasion of Panama in 1989. To shouts of “Maduro, stick it to the Yankee”, he vowed to personally ask Mr Obama to apologise to Panama and compensate victims of what he called a “massacre” that left more than 500 people dead during the invasion.
“Never again a US invasion in Latin America,” Mr Maduro said.
President Evo Morales of Bolivia said he backed Maduro’s drive to end US intervention in the region.
The Obama-Castro conversation on Wednesday was the first since they spoke on December 17.
The flurry of diplomacy around the summit was recognition of the historic nature of the new relationship intended to end five decades of American presidents either isolating or working to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government.
Still, Mr Obama made a point of meeting about 15 Latin American activists, including two Cubans who have challenged Mr Castro’s government. The White House said the Cubans were Laritza Diversent, a human rights lawyer and independent journalist, and Manuel Cuesta Morua, a leader of a centrist opposition group.
A large contingent of pro-Castro Cubans who were supposed to participate in a larger civil society forum left shortly before Mr Obama spoke, to protest at the inclusion of Cuban dissidents.
Mr Obama was already getting praise from allies in the Americas.
“President Obama is going to leave a legacy the way he is supporting Hispanics in the United States, and also his new policy for Cuba for us is very important,” said Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela.
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