Barack Obama and Raul Castro meet, launch new era of U.S.-Cuba ties

Willie Grace | 4/13/2015, 6 a.m.
The meeting in a small conference room on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas came as the two ...
President Barack Obama

PANAMA CITY, Panama (CNN) -- Ending a decades-long standstill in U.S.-Cuba relations, President Barack Obama met for an hour Saturday with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, the first time the two nations' top leaders have sat down for substantive talks in more than 50 years.

The meeting in a small conference room on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas came as the two countries work to end the Cold War enmity that had led to a total freeze of diplomatic ties. And while both leaders proclaimed progress had been made, a key stumbling block -- Cuba's place on the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terror -- remained unresolved.

"This is obviously an historic meeting," Obama said at the beginning of his session with Castro, claiming that decades of strain had done little to benefit either Cubans or citizens of the United States.

"It was time for us to try something new," he said. ‎"We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future."

Castro, who earlier in the day said he trusted Obama, acknowledged there would be difficult stumbling blocks as his nation works to repair ties with the United States. But he said those differences could be surmounted.

Raul Castro: 'We need to be patient'

"We are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient, very patient," Castro said. "We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow."

Speaking to reporters after his session with Castro, Obama said the meeting was "candid and fruitful" and could prove to be a "turning point" in his push to defrost ties with Cuba.

But he said he hadn't yet decided whether to remove Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terror, an outcome that had previously been expected during the summit. The State Department provided Obama with a review of the terror status this week.

"I want to make sure I have a chance to read it, study it before we announce publicly what the policy outcome is going to be," Obama said. "But in terms of the overall direction of Cuba policy, I think there is a strong majority both in the United States and in Cuba that says our ability to engage, to open up commerce and travel and people to people exchanges is ultimately going to be good for Cuban people."

On Friday night, Obama and Castro greeted each other courteously amid an explosion of camera flashes, shaking hands before dining at the inaugural session of the conference. The two sat at the same table but not directly next to one another.

Before Obama arrived in Panama on Wednesday, he spoke with Castro by phone, laying the groundwork for what will become a new era of relations between the neighboring countries.

No interest in old battles

"The Cold War has been over for a long time," Obama said during opening remarks at the summit Saturday. "I'm not interested in having battles, frankly, that began before I was born."