President Barack Obama was set to meet face-to-face with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro on Friday, the first time the leaders have interacted since their nations agreed to renew diplomatic relations after half-a-century of enmity.
Obama arrived in Panama late Thursday to his third Summit of the Americas, a large gathering of Latin American leaders that in years past was tinged with animosity at Cuba’s exclusion. Moments after Marine One, Obama’s helicopter, touched down in Panama City, Castro’s plane landed on the same tarmac. Panamanian television carried both arrivals live.
This year, Obama was expecting a warmer welcome from the dozens of countries represented at the conference, after announcing in December he was seeking to engage Havana in talks over reopening embassies and removing barriers to commerce and travel.
In Panama, Obama is expected to announce he’s removing Cuba from the United States’ list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a major advance in building diplomatic ties between the two countries.
The State Department delivered its report on the designation to the White House on Wednesday; Obama said on Thursday a panel of experts was reviewing it before he makes a final determination.
But in remarks during a brief stopover in Jamaica, he strongly hinted he was ready to remove Cuba from the list, which also includes Iran, Sudan and Syria.
“Throughout this process, our emphasis has been on the facts,” Obama said. “So we want to make sure that given that this is a powerful tool to isolate those countries that genuinely do support terrorism, that when we make those designations we’ve got strong evidence that, in fact, that’s the case.”
“As circumstances change, then that list will change as well,” he said.
While some inside Cuba have expressed dissatisfaction at the pace of the diplomatic thaw, U.S. officials insist they’re pleased at the progress toward re-establishing diplomatic ties, which the White House argues has helped improve relations with other countries in the region.
Obama said in Jamaica he “never foresaw that immediately overnight everything would transform itself.”
The summit meetings Friday and Saturday will mark the first time Cuba participates in the conference, which takes place every three years. At the two Obama previously attended, in Trinidad and Colombia, reception toward the U.S. delegation was icy.
“We felt it was long overdue and takes a huge irritant out of our policy in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs who’s led talks with Cuba re-establishing diplomatic ties.
The overtures to Cuba have not been universally popular in the United States; some lawmakers were irate that Obama was seeking to engage what they regard as a corrupt government.
Obama was planning to meet in Panama with Cuban dissidents, some of whom were violently accosted earlier this week by supporters of the Castro regime.