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Obama-Castro hold 'historic' talks

Published 11/04/2015

Barack Obama, right middle row, and Raul Castro, left middle row, join other world leaders at the Summit of the Americas arrival ceremony in Panama City (AP)
Barack Obama, right middle row, and Raul Castro, left middle row, join other world leaders at the Summit of the Americas arrival ceremony in Panama City (AP)

The leaders of the United States and Cuba have held their first formal meeting in more than half a century, clearing the way for a normalisation of relations that had seemed unthinkable to both Cubans and Americans for generations.

In a small conference room in a Panama City convention centre, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro sat side by side in a bid to inject fresh momentum into their months-old effort to restore diplomatic ties.

Mr Obama said he wanted to "turn the page" on old divisions, although he acknowledged that significant differences between the governments would remain.

"This is obviously a historic meeting," Mr Obama said shortly after the two sat down. "It was my belief it was time to try something new, that it was important for us to engage more directly with the Cuban government."

"And more importantly, with Cuban people," the president added.

Mr Castro told the US president he was ready to discuss sensitive issues including human rights and freedom of the press, maintaining that "everything can be on the table". But he also cautioned that the two countries also have "agreed to disagree".

"We are willing to make progress in the way the president has described," Mr Castro said.

The remarkable gathering played out on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, which this year included Cuba for the first time. Although the meeting wasn't publicly announced in advance, White House aides had suggested the two leaders were looking for an opportunity to meet while in Panama and to discuss the ongoing efforts to open embassies in Havana and Washington, among other issues.

In brief remarks to reporters at the start of the meeting, Mr Obama acknowledged that Cuba, too, would continue raising concerns about US policies. Earlier, Mr Castro launched into an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the US in his speech to fellow leaders attending the summit.

Mr Castro, for his part, said he agreed with everything Mr Obama had said.

"We are disposed to talk about everything - with patience," Castro said in Spanish. "Some things we will agree with, and others we won't."

And nothing is static, he added, noting that disagreements today could turn into areas of agreement tomorrow.

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