PRESIDENT Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro plan their first substantial, in-person discussion today in a historic encounter as they work to restore diplomatic ties after more than half a century of estrangement between their countries.
Details of their meeting were still being worked out last night, said a White House foreign policy adviser.
The two leaders spoke by phone on Wednesday for only the second time, ahead of their arrival in Panama City only minutes apart on Thursday evening for the Summit of the Americas.
Mr Obama and Mr Castro exchanged a brief handshake in 2013 during Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa, but haven’t held any substantive in-person meetings.
They also planned to be among the leaders attending opening events of the summit last night at Panama Viejo, home to archaeological ruins dating to the 1500s.
The White House spokesman said their meeting on the sidelines would come on the summit’s second and final day.
He added yesterday: “We don’t have a formal meeting scheduled at a certain time, but we anticipate they will have a discussion tomorrow.”
Mr Obama and Mr Castro, brother of longtime former Cuban president Fidel Castro, first spoke in a December phone call as both announced their intent to restore diplomatic relations between their countries, a move that sent shockwaves through Latin America.
US secretary of state John Kerry and Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez led into the presidential meeting with a private discussion in Panama City that the state department described as lengthy and productive.
The Cuban government said the nearly three-hour talks were “respectful and constructive.”
The flurry of diplomacy was likely to reinvigorate ongoing efforts by the US and Cuba to start their relationship anew after five decades of American presidents either isolating or working to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government.
Mr Obama is preparing to announce a decision about removing Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, a major impediment to warmer ties as far as Havana is concerned.
The US has long since stopped actively accusing Cuba of supporting terrorism and Mr Obama has hinted at his willingness to take Cuba off the list since he and Castro announced a thaw in relations in December. Yet Mr Obama has stopped short of the formal decision amid indications that the White House was reluctant to grant Cuba’s request until other issues – such as restrictions on US diplomats in Havana – were resolved.
“We don’t want to be imprisoned by the past,” Mr Obama said on Thursday in Jamaica, the first stop on his trip. “When something doesn’t work for 50 years, you don’t just keep on doing it. You try something new.”
Four months ago, Mr Obama and Mr Castro began a painstaking process that has brought to the surface difficult issues that have long fed in to the US-Cuban estrangement. Hopes of reopening embassies in Havana and Washington before the summit failed to materialise. The US is still pushing Cuba to allow more freedom of movement for its diplomats, while Cuba wants relief from a sanctions regime that only Congress can fully lift.
In a nod to lingering US concerns about human rights and political freedoms, Mr Obama was making a point to attend a forum bringing together both dissidents and members of the Cuban political establishment while in Panama.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS