Obama, Castro hold 'candid' historic meeting

PANAMA CITY, Panama (UPDATED) –  US President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro held unprecedented face-to-face talks in Panama on Saturday, April 11, soothing decades of Cold War-era antagonism in a historic effort to restore diplomatic ties.

In the first sitdown between leaders of both nations since 1956, Obama thanked Castro for his "spirit of openness and courtesy" during their interactions, while the communist leader stressed that the negotiations will require patience. (US-Cuba thaw: Progress but long way to go)

And in a bid to calm rising tensions with another leftist nation, Obama also spoke briefly with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, telling him Washington did not seek to threaten Caracas.

The Obama-Castro meeting, which lasted more than an hour, was 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.

"This is obviously a historic meeting," said Obama, who spoke first after they sat down in polished, wooden chairs for their talks on the sidelines of the 35-nation Summit of the Americas.

Obama declared that, after 50 years of US policies that had not worked, "it was time for us to try something new."

‎"We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future," he said, adding that the immediate task was to reopen embassies that shuttered after the 1961 diplomatic break.

Castro cracked a smile when Obama acknowledged that the two sides will continue to have differences on human rights and other issues.

After Obama spoke, the two men stood up and shook hands.

Saying he agreed with everything Obama said, Castro said the two government can still have differences but "with respect of the ideas of the others."

"We are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient, very patient," he said.

"We already expressed to some American friends in other occasions that we are willing to talk about everything."

When Castro said he hoped the US and Cuban delegations will listen to their presidents' instructions, Obama laughed.

The two leaders, who had spoken on the phone in December and again on Wednesday, shook hands again and reporters were ushered away for a closed-door discussion.

Obama and Castro had already made conciliatory speeches moments earlier during the summit, sitting in an oval table with some 30 other regional leaders.

Obama and Castro had already made conciliatory speeches moments earlier during the summit, sitting in an oval table with some 30 other regional leaders.

US-Cuban tensions have vexed Washington's relations with the region for decades.

"This shift in US policy represents a turning point for our entire region," Obama told the summit.

Addressing the leaders next, Castro declared: "President Obama is an honest man."

He was the first Cuban leader to attend the summit in its 21-year history.

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

Differences remain 

But both leaders acknowledged that the two countries still have work to do restore ties.

Obama cited the human rights situation in Cuba, while Castro renewed calls for the US Congress to lift the 1962 embargo.

Despite their differences, "there wasn't tension" during the bilateral meeting, a senior US administration official said.

Obama and Castro discussed the embassy negotiations and instructed their teams to swiftly resolve lingering issues during their private talks, the official said.

"We've made good progress," the official said. "Our expectation is this could be concluded relatively quickly."‎

Castro mentioned his desire to see the end of the US embargo, which forbids most trade and American tourism to the island. Obama has urged the US Congress to end it.

Addressing a key Cuban demand, Obama told Castro that he would decide whether to recommend removing Cuba from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism in the "coming days," the official said.

Castro told the summit that Obama was taking a "positive step" by reviewing his country's inclusion on the list, which has blocked Havana's access to international loans.

Venezuela tensions surface 

But as Obama sought to turn the page on Cold War-era tensions with Cuba, a spat with Venezuela also took the stage.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro criticized Obama, but the US leader had already left the room to head to a bilateral meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

"I respect you, but I don't trust you, President Obama," Maduro said.

He urged Obama to lift sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of committing human rights abuses. The order has particularly irritated Maduro because it calls Caracas a US national security threat.

The order has particularly irritated Maduro because it calls Caracas a US national security threat.

After Maduro complained that Obama had ignored his pleas to hold talks since the Venezuelan leader was elected in 2013, it emerged that the two briefly spoke on the sidelines of the summit.

Obama "reiterated that our interest is not in threatening Venezuela, but in supporting democracy, stability and prosperity in Venezuela and the region," said Katherine Vargas, a White House spokeswoman.

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

Maduro's leftist allies rallied behind him.

"Our people will never again accept tutelage, meddling and intervention," said Ecuador's President Rafael Correa. – Laurent Thomey and Andrew Beatty, Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com