President Obama held a private meeting with Cuban leader Raul Castro Saturday, ending more than half a century of U.S. diplomatic attempts to isolate Cuba and cast it as a pariah state.
“This is obviously an historic meeting,” Obama said as the two men sat beside one another in identical wooden armchairs in a small room at a convention center here.
Obama said that more than five decades of U.S. policy on Cuba had failed to bring change to the communist island, and, “It was time for us to try something new” even as both nations deal with “deep and significant differences.”
He declared it’s time “to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”
A handful of aides were in the room with the two leaders, and a U.S. press pool observed part of the meeting. The two leaders shook hands at least twice.
“We are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient, very patient,” Castro said through an interpreter for the pool. “We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow.”
The rapprochement will surely be remembered as one of Obama’s most significant foreign policy moves in a presidency that began in 2009. He announced intentions to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba last Dec. 17, and the pace of bilateral contacts has quickened markedly, even in the last three days.
The meeting came on the sidelines of the two-day Summit of the Americas, which drew leaders from nearly all the hemisphere’s 35 countries and brought about a topsy-turvy scene in which leaders from nations supportive of Venezuela lashed the United States and offered a litany of grievances while Castro offered a spirited defense of Obama.
Castro accused the United States of a tarnished history in the hemisphere but absolved Obama of any responsibility.
“In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man,” Castro said. “I admire him and his life and think his behavior has a lot to do with his humble background.”
At one point in his 50-minute speech, Castro paused after passionately recounting his version of U.S. actions to isolate and besiege his country.
“I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this. There were 10 presidents before him and all of them owe some kind of debt except for President Obama,” Castro said.
Some fellow presidents clapped loudly at Castro’s defense of Obama.
“Believe me, I have given a great deal of thought to those words. I had written them down. I removed them. But there, I said it. I am pleased that I have said this about President Obama.”
During much of Castro’s speech, Obama sat silently chewing gum, an earpiece in his right ear offering translation.
The two leaders had spoken on the telephone last Wednesday, the White House said, their second conversation since last December when the two announced their intention to re-establish diplomatic relations severed in 1961. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, held a lengthy meeting in Panama City Thursday night.
At the summit’s inauguration Friday night, Obama and Castro clasped hands briefly as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon looked on in evident satisfaction.
Speaking at a morning session Saturday, Obama said the U.S. government had opened a new era of engagement with Latin America, dealing with the countries as “equal partners.”
“The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We’re looking to the future,” he said, emphasizing his administration’s desire to open “a new relationship with Cuba.”