US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro have held "historic" face-to-face talks in Panama. Castro said he saw Obama as an "honest man" who could be trusted because of his humble origins.
Barack Obama and Raul Castro shared the highest-level talks between the US and Cuba in nearly 60 years on Saturday, with the two men agreeing to push ahead in improving long-frozen bilateral ties. Describing their private meeting as "historic," Obama said afterwards that the two countries could end decades of Cold War antagonism.
"We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future," Obama told Castro as they met in Panama City, where they were both attending the 35-country Summit of the Americas.
Neither leader ducked contentious issues, with Obama saying he would continue to push on issues like human rights and press freedom. Castro, to the same token, called for the US to remove Cuba from its list of terror-supporting countries as a precondition to reestablishing embassies.
Progress may be slow, both warn
The Cuban president, who said no topic would be taboo in the new talks but that patience would also be required, lauded Obama as an "honest man" who could be trusted owing to his humble background.
Similarly, Obama acknowledged in an extended press conference after the historic handshake that the two countries were liable to maintain significant differences for years to come.
"We have very different views of how society should be organized and I was very direct with him that we are not going to stop talking about issues like democracy and human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press," he said.
After 18 months of under-the-radar talks, the two countries announced in December that they would attempt to normalize ties, with Saturday's meeting the most public appointment in the process to date. Washington cut ties with Cuba altogether in 1961.
Obama told reporters that he had decided to seek a new strategy on Cuba, saying the old approach of open hostility and an economic blockade had failed to force through any significant changes on the socialist island.
Also at the summit, Obama briefly met with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, following a bitter dispute over recent US sanctions on seven senior Venezuelan officials.
The White House did not immediately comment on this encounter, but Maduro's presidential aide said on Twitter that there was "a lot of truth, respect and cordiality" in the exchange.
Iran, Hillary share Havana's limelight
Despite the landmark developments with one of the US' closest and most hostile neighbors, American journalists in Panama seemed just as keen to quiz Obama about the recent preliminary nuclear accord with Iran, and about the prospect of Hillary Clinton seeking the Democratic nomination for the US presidency ahead of the 2016 election.
"She was a formidable opponent in 2008, she was a great supporter of mine in the general election, she was an outstanding secretary of state, she is my friend. I think she would be an excellent president," Obama said of Clinton. The president beat Clinton to the 2008 Democratic nomination, despite a considerably smaller public profile and financial war chest prior to the primaries, where candidates are chosen.
On the issue of Iran, and the considerable resistance Obama is encountering from the Republican-controlled Congress, the president was highly critical of some senior Republican lawmakers, saying "partisanship has crossed all boundaries" in Washington.
"It needs to stop," Obama, who seemed to be addressing senior Republican Senator John McCain in particular, said. His full comments were later posted by the US government, visible below.
msh/cmk (AFP, AP, Reuters)