U.S., Cuba to take stock of negotiations

Obama, Castro discussed the agenda of the upcoming summit by telephone on Wednesday

Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro are expected to hold talks on Saturday, a U.S. official said, raising the prospect of the first substantive meeting between an American and Cuban leader in more than five decades.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro are in Panama for the two-day Summit of the Americas, Cuba’s first, raising expectations of a landmark follow-up to their historic announcement on December 17 that their countries would restore ties severed since 1961.

“We certainly do anticipate that they will have the opportunity to see each other at the summit tomorrow,” senior Obama advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on Friday. “We do expect [them to have] a discussion tomorrow.”

He said the extent of the meeting had yet to be decided, but that the two leaders “will be able to take stock” of the negotiations to normalise relations and reopen embassies, as well as discuss lingering “differences.”

The meeting will be the first since Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro briefly shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013.

First substantive talks

An actual discussion would be the first substantive talks between U.S. and Cuban leaders since 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower met dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was toppled by Fidel Castro three years later.

That meeting also happened in Panama.

Mr. Rhodes said Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro had already discussed the ongoing negotiations and the upcoming summit by telephone on Wednesday — their first phone call since December, just before they announced the game-changing diplomatic thaw.

But he said there was no decision yet on one of the key obstacles in the negotiations, Cuba’s presence on the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.

“I’m not ruling out any announcement but ... we are not there yet in terms of a final recommendation being made to the President, and the President making a determination,” he said.

Cuba’s presence on the blacklist — which also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan — has been a major sticking point in negotiations to reopen embassies.

If and when Mr. Obama decides Cuba should be removed from the list, Congress will have 45 days to decide whether to override his recommendation.

Some 30 leaders were to gather from Friday evening at the summit, posing for pictures and sitting down for a seaside dinner in a complex of ruins from the era of the Spanish conquistadors.

The U.S .and Cuban chief diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, made history themselves on Thursday evening when they held talks — the first such meeting since 1958, a year before Fidel Castro’s revolutionary guerrillas seized power.

Both sides said the nearly three-hour talks were “constructive” and would be followed by further conversations to resolve outstanding issues.

Cuba has other major demands, most importantly that the U.S .Congress lift an embargo that the communist regime blames for the island’s economic troubles.

Washington wants Cuba to lift restrictions on the movement of its diplomats on the island, giving them unfettered access to ordinary Cubans. The reconciliation appears popular in both countries. — AFP

The meeting will be the first since the two leaders briefly shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral

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