US President Barack Obama has said his face-to-face talks with Cuba's Raul Castro, the first such meeting between US and Cuban leaders since 1956, would allow the countries to "move on a path toward the future."
The bid to restore US-Cuban diplomatic ties, after decades of sanctions, began in earnest in Panama City on Saturday when presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro sat down to talks that seemed unthinkable for half a century.
"This is obviously a historic meeting," Obama said, speaking to reporters first after the pair sat down for their talks on the sidelines of the 35-country Summit of the Americas.
"We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future," Obama told Castro. "Over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our countries."
The two men stood and shook hands after Obama spoke, prior to Castro addressing reporters in Spanish.
"We are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient, very patient," Castro said.
The Cuban leader also indicated that he was prepared to discuss issues like human rights and freedom of the press, saying "everything can be on the table," but he also warned that the two countries have also "agreed to differ" on certain points. He said that nothing was static, meaning that areas of disagreement could in time become common ground.
The talks were the upshot of around 18 months of secret negotiations, with Washington and Havana making the surprise announcement last December that they would be seeking to normalize ties.
Half a century in silence
Washington cut ties with Cuba in 1961, while the two countries' leaders had not spoken face to face since 1956. Since the December announcement, Obama has lifted some restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. Castro said earlier on Saturday that Cuban people had suffered hugely from decades of economic isolation, albeit stressing that Obama was not responsible for the US' past policies in Cuba.
Cuba was participating at the 21-year-old summit for the first time. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos echoed earlier comments from Obama about a "turning point" for the region, saying "an old obstacle in relations between Latin America and North America is being removed."
Castro has asked the US to remove Cuba from its list of terrorism-supporting countries before embassies can formally reopen, noting that this classification has blocked the country's access to bank credit.
Obama was expected to address the public at length later on Saturday night in Panama.
msh/cmk (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)