Obama, Castro herald new era at Americas Summit

PANAMA CITY, Panama – US President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro heralded a new era of bilateral relations on Saturday, April 11, as they both addressed a landmark Summit of the Americas ahead of historic one-on-one talks.

Sitting around an oval table with some 30 other regional leaders in Panama City, Obama and Castro spoke one after the other in an unprecedented public exchange between the leaders of the Cold War-era foes.

"This shift in US policy represents a turning point for our entire region," Obama said. "The fact that President Castro and I are both sitting here today marks a historic occasion."

As the US leader looked on, Castro declared: "President Obama is an honest man."

But both leaders acknowledged that the two countries, as they negotiate to restore diplomatic relations that broke off in 1961, will continue to have disagreements.

Obama cited the human rights situation in Cuba, while Castro renewed calls for the US Congress to lift a decades-old embargo. (READ: US-Cuba thaw: Progress but long way to go)

"I think it's no secret, President Castro I'm sure would agree, that there will continue to be significant differences between our two countries," Obama said.

Taking their bid to restore diplomatic ties to a new level, Obama and Castro will have a discussion on the sidelines of the second and final day of the summit.

The two leaders already said hello late Friday, greeting each other and shaking hands – a gesture rich in symbolism – as other leaders looked on.

The face-to-face talks will be the climax of their surprise announcement on December 17 that, after 18 months of secret negotiations, they would seek to normalize relations between their two nations.

It is Cuba's first time participating at the 21-year-old summit.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos summed up the mood, saying "an old obstacle in relations between Latin America and North America is being removed."

The last time US and Cuban leaders met was in 1956, three years before Fidel Castro came to power.

"This is not just about two leaders sitting down together," said senior Obama advisor Ben Rhodes.

"It's about fundamentally changing how the United States engages Cuba – its government, its people, its civil society."

Terror list hurdle

The format of the meeting has yet to be confirmed, but Rhodes said the two leaders would likely talk about the negotiations to restore diplomatic ties as well as lingering disagreements.

Cuba has demanded to be removed from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism before embassies can reopen, noting that this has blocked the country's access to bank credit.

Castro told the summit that Obama was taking a "positive step" by reviewing his country's inclusion on the list.

The White House indicated that Obama was not yet ready to decide whether to remove Havana from the blacklist, but that it could not rule out an announcement in Panama. (READ: Obama advised to take Cuba off terror list)

"The potential removal from the list will represent the current US-Cuba relationship becoming more pragmatic," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, Americas analyst at US consultancy IHS Country Risk.

"But overall engagement will still be limited by the US embargo," he said. 

Obama has urged the US Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba, which was imposed in 1962, barring most trade with the island as well as tourism.

Venezuela tension

Underscoring his increasing engagement with Latin America, Obama will also likely meet Colombia's Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who canceled a US trip in 2013 over revelations of US spying against her.

But even as Obama seeks to turn the page on Cold War-era tensions, a new headache has come to the fore in the form of Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Havana's main ally in the region, has vowed to present to Obama a petition with 13.4 million signatures urging him to lift sanctions against officials over an opposition crackdown.

The White House has sought to ease tensions ahead of the summit, saying it did not really believe that Venezuela posed a national security threat, as the sanctions document stated.

The sanctions have irritated other Latin American countries.

"The response has been forceful, rejecting the executive order and demanding its removal," Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa said. "Our people will never again accept tutelage, meddling and intervention." – Laurent Thomet and Andrew Beatty, Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com