Obama, Castro to break bread at historic summit

Obama, Castro to break bread at historic summit
Presidents Raul Castro (L) and Barack Obama (R) will join some 30 other presidents at the two-day Summit of the Americas in Panama City, breaking bread at a seaside dinner.

PANAMA CITY - US President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro will put aside decades of Cold War-era tensions Friday, sitting at the same table with other regional leaders for a landmark summit.

Obama and Castro will join some 30 other presidents at the two-day Summit of the Americas in Panama City, breaking bread at a seaside dinner in a complex of ruins from the era of the Spanish conquistadores.

Their chief diplomats, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, made history themselves when they held talks Thursday evening.

It was the first meeting between the chief diplomats of the two nations since 1958, a year before Fidel Castro's revolutionary guerrilla seized power.

In a bombshell announcement, the countries revealed in December they had agreed to restore diplomatic ties. Talks have started.

Kerry and Rodriguez "had a lengthy and very constructive discussion this evening.

"The two agreed they made progress and that we would continue to work to resolve outstanding issues," a State Department official said in a brief statement.

While the meetings are packed with powerful symbolism, the two countries have a long road ahead in their broader goal of normalizing relations.

An Obama-Castro meeting is "part of the overall negotiations that are taking place," said former Cuban diplomat and foreign relations professor Carlos Alzugaray.

"This doesn't end with Raul's presence at the summit; it's the beginning." Obama acknowledged as much on Thursday during a visit to Jamaica, before landing in Panama.

"I never foresaw that immediately overnight everything would transform itself, that suddenly Cuba became a partner diplomatically with us the way Jamaica is, for example," he said. "That's going to take some time."

Sticking points

The US leader may bring to the table a resolution to an old gripe from Cuba, as a senator said the US State Department recommended that he remove Havana from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Cuba's inclusion on the blacklist, which includes Iran, Syria and Sudan, has been a major sticking point in negotiations to reopen embassies that closed after relations broke in 1961.

Cuba was first put on the blacklist in 1982 for harbouring ETA Basque separatist militants and Colombian FARC rebels.

Removing Cuba from the terror-sponsor list would not be immediate. Congress would have 45 days to decide whether to override Obama's recommendation.

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