PANAMA CITY — Presidents Obama and Castro took a huge step towards normalizing bilateral diplomatic relations today by meeting face-to-face for a private chat in Panama City, but urged patience as the two countries work together at their own pace to mend a difficult relationship that has been mostly hostile for more than 50 years.
The historic meeting —which began with a 12-minute interaction before a pool of reporters — marks the first time in 59 years that a U.S. president and a Cuban president have sat down together to talk face-to-face. Both leaders insisted that everything is on the table moving forward, and that they agree to disagree on certain issues, but not on lifting the U.S embargo — which remains Cuba's priority moving forward, according to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez.
“This is obviously a historic meeting,” Obama said to open the meeting. “The history between the United States and Cuba is obviously complicated. Over the years, a lot of mistrust has developed. But during the course of the last several months, there have been contacts between the U.S. and the Cuban governments.”
“I think that after 50 years of a policy that had not changed on the part of the United States, it was my belief that it was time to try something new,” Obama said, stressing the importance of engaging “more directly with the Cuban government and the Cuban people.”
Obama said the efforts to move forward are being celebrated in both countries, where the “majorities of the American people and the Cuban people respond positively to this chance.”
It’s the beginning of a new chapter of deeper connections between the two countries, including “more commerce and interactions” between the people, and “more positive and constructive relationship between our governments,” Obama said.
The meeting doesn’t, however, erase all past differences, Obama said.
“Obviously there are still going to be deep and significant differences between our two governments,” the U.S. president said. “We will continue to try to lift up concerns around democracy and human rights.”
Obama acknowledged that Cuba will raise its concerns too.
“As you heard from President Castro’s passionate speech this morning, they will lift up concerns about U.S. policy as well,” he said. “But I think what we have both concluded is that we can disagree with a spirit of respect and civility, and that over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”
Obama said he heard Castro’s message about “the significant hardships the people of Cuba have undergone over many decades.” And said “I can say with all sincerity that the essence of my policy is to do whatever I can to make sure that the people of Cuba are able to prosper and live in freedom and security and enjoy a connection with the world where their incredible talents and ingenuity and hard work can thrive.”
Obama said the immediate tasks moving forward include “normalizing diplomatic relations and ultimately opening an embassy in Havana, and Cuba being able to open an embassy in Washington, D.C., so that our diplomats are able to interact on a more regular basis.”
The U.S. president thanked his Cuban counterpart for his “spirit of openness and courtesy that he has shown during our interactions.”
Castro, for his part, said he echoed Obama’s sentiments.
“I think that what President Obama has just said, it’s practically the same as we feel,” Castro said, adding that his government is willing to discuss everything with the U.S., “including human rights, freedom of the press.”
“We are willing to discuss every issue between the United States and Cuba," Castro said. “I think that everything can be on the table.”
The issue, Castro said, is to discuss everything “with respect for the ideas of the other.”
“We could be persuaded of some things. Of others, we might not be persuaded,” Castro said. “We have agreed to disagreement…No one should entertain illusions. It is true that we have many differences.”
“Our countries have a long and complicated history,” Castro added. “But we are willing to make progress in the way the president has described. We can develop friendship between our two peoples.”
Castro repeated Obama’s calls to open embassies.
“We are close neighbors,” he said. But as neighbors with a past, both countries have to be patient moving forward, Castro said.
“We need to be patient…very patient,” Castro said. “The pace of life at the present moment in the world, it’s very fast.”
Tim Rogers, Fusion's senior editor for Latin America, was born a gringo to well-meaning parents, but would rather have been Nicaraguan. Also, he's the second hit on Google when you search for "Guatemalan superhero." Tim was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.