Obama, Castro hold first sit-down between US and Cuban leaders in more than half a century.

Obama, Castro Hold First Sit-Down Between U.S. and Cuban Leaders in More Than Half a Century

Obama, Castro Hold First Sit-Down Between U.S. and Cuban Leaders in More Than Half a Century

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April 11 2015 4:55 PM

Obama, Castro Hold First Sit-Down Between U.S. and Cuban Leaders in More Than Half a Century

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President Barack Obama speaks with Cuba's President Raúl Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, on April 11, 2015 in Panama City.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

UPDATE: President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro held a much-anticipated sit-down on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas on Saturday. It marked the first time the leaders of Cuba and the United States met face-to-face in more than 50 years and is seen as a key step toward normalizing relations between the two countries. “This is obviously a historic meeting,” Obama said after the two leaders sat down, according to the Associated Press. “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.”

“We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future,” Obama told Castro, according to the Miami Herald. “Over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”

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President Barack Obama reaches out to shake hands with Cuba's President Raúl Castro in Panama on April 11, 2015.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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Castro, for his part, said he was all ears and no issues were off the table, but cautioned that those who believed the two countries would suddenly become best of friends would be sorely disappointed because the leaders have also “agreed to disagree.” Even without any specific advances, it was still a remarkable scene that a Cuban leader would agree so publicly with a U.S. president. "We are disposed to talk about everything—with patience," Castro said. “Some things we will agree with, and others we won't.”

Earlier in the day, Castro vociferously condemned the United States for its previous coup attempts in the island, but said Obama was not to blame, calling him “an honest man,” reports Reuters. In another remarkable statements, Castro said at one point: "I apologize to President Obama, because he is not responsible for any of this." Obama also emphasized that he was focused on turning the page. “The United States will not be imprisoned by the past — we’re looking to the future,” Obama said earlier in the day, according to the New York Times. “I’m not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born.”

“The Cold War,” added Obama, “has been over for a long time.”

Obama’s move is not just important for U.S. relations with Cuba, but also Latin America as a whole. Washington’s policy toward Havana had long become an easy way for regional leaders to criticize the United States. “Our Cuba policy, instead of isolating Cuba, was isolating the United States in our own backyard,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

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Yet Cuba was hardly the only regional grievance directed at the United States. Sanctions against some Venezuelan officials was also the target of much scorn from presidents, including, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, notes Bloomberg. “The first thing I did was laugh,” Fernández said about her reaction to hearing about the sanctions. “How can it be that the largest power in the world considers the Republic of Venezuela a threat.” Bolivia’s Evo Morales, meanwhile, said the United States often acts “like a dictatorship.”

Despite the criticism though, everyone seemed to recognize that Cuba’s mere inclusion in the summit marked a step forward after years in which the United States blocked the island’s participation in the gathering. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who had publicly called on the United States to allow Cuba to participate, recognized this dynamic. “This summit brings together all the countries of the hemisphere without exceptions,” Santos said.

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President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro shake hands as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (R) looks on, before the inauguration of the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 10, 2015.

REUTERS/Panama Presidency/Handout via Reuters

Original post on April 11 at 12 p.m.: President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro briefly shook hands on Friday night in Panama, a day before they were expected to hold a one-on-one meeting. It was an informal interaction and there was not a substantive conversation,” a National Security Council spokeswoman said. It wasn’t the first time the two leaders shook hands—they had done so before at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013—but it was particularly significant because it came shortly before the much-anticipated one-on-one between the heads of state. "The unofficial and slightly blurred images suggest a cordial encounter and a brief chat," notes the Guardian. "The handshake appeared somewhat less emphatic than that between the two men at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in 2013."

The expected Saturday meeting isn’t officially on the schedule, but it’s expected to happen on the sidelines. It really is the moment everyone is waiting for at the Summit of the Americas and US officials are assuring that the two leaders will hold a “substantive conversation,” as the Associated Press puts it. It will mark the highest level talks between the two countries since then-vice president Richard Nixon and then-prime minister Fidel Castro talked in 1959.

The build-up to the historic meeting has taken lots of meticulous planning. Obama spoke with Castro by phone on Wednesday and the two leaders discussed the process of normalizing relations between the two countries, reports CNN. "We're in new territory here," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said on Friday. "The reason we're here is that the President strongly believes that an approach that was focused totally on isolation, focused totally on seeking to cut off the Cuban people from the United States of America had failed."

Fully normalizing relations between the two countries could take years, but the presidents could quickly restore diplomatic ties. Cuba has refused to take the crucial step until Washington removes the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, notes the Washington Post. There is strong speculation that Obama will use Saturday’s meeting to announce just that.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.