Obama, Castro poised for historic meeting

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

PANAMA CITY. – US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro were set to share the same stage yesterday in an encounter rich with symbolism as their countries set aside decades of mistrust and attempt to restore diplomatic relations.

The rapprochement is set to dominate the Summit of the Americas meeting, held in Panama, less than four months after they announced they would seek to lower tensions and boost trade and travel between the two Cold War enemies.

Obama and Castro spoke by phone on Wednesday before the US leader left Washington, a White House official said.

They have separate agendas for most of the day but will both attend the start of the summit along with other regional leaders.

Apart from a couple of brief, informal encounters, the leaders of the United States and Cuba have not had any significant meetings since Castro’s older brother Fidel Castro toppled US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 revolution.

Raul Castro

Raul Castro

But the two countries’ top diplomats – US Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez – held talks at a Panama City hotel on Thursday night, the first meeting of its kind since the United States’ John Foster Dulles and Cuba’s Gonzalo Guell got together in Washington in 1958.

Sitting face-to-face in a room visible through a large glass window, Kerry and Rodriguez talked for over two hours.

A senior US State Department official described it as a “lengthy and very constructive discussion” and said they made progress.

Obama appears to be close to removing Cuba from the US list of countries that it says sponsor terrorism. Cuba’s inclusion on the list has exacerbated tensions and made it harder for US companies to do business with Cuba.

The State Department has now recommended that Cuba be taken off the list, a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide said on Thursday. – Reuters.