WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama sat down with Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday, the first substantial meeting between the countries' leaders in more than 50 years.
According to a White House pool report from the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Obama and Castro, the brother of former Cuban President Fidel Castro, met in a small room in the convention center, and were seated next to each other in "the same set up as when world leaders are hosted in the Oval Office."
"This is obviously an historic meeting," Obama said. After 50 years of U.S. embargo toward Cuba, "it was time for us to try something new, that it was important for us to engage more directly with the Cuban government and the Cuban people. And as a consequence, I think we are now in a position to move on a path towards the future, and leave behind some of the circumstances of the past that have made it so difficult, I think, for our countries to communicate."
Following Obama's remarks, Raul Castro said the two nations could have differences "with respect of the ideas of the others."
"We could be persuaded of some things; of others, we might not be persuaded," Castro said. "But when I say that I agree with everything that the president has just said, I include that we have agreed to disagree. No one should entertain illusions. It is true that we have many differences. Our countries have a long and complicated history, but we are willing to make progress in the way the president has described."
In an indicator of the newfound warmth between the two countries, he said, "We shall open our embassies. We shall visit each other, having exchanges, people to people."
He also said that "everything can be on the table," even discussions of human rights and freedom of the press, the AP reported.
Obama told reporters before departing for Washington that he was still considering whether to remove Cuba from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a key priority for Castro.
At the press briefing, Obama said his meeting with Castro could be a “turning point” in the countries’ relationship. "We have very different views of how society should be organized,” Obama said of the Cuban leader. Yet he also told reporters: “Cuba is not a threat to the United States."
On Friday, the two leaders greeted each other and shook hands for the second time ever. A White House official described the encounter as an "informal interaction, with no substantive conversation between the two."
This story has been updated with fuller remarks from Obama and Castro.