Not since the height of the Cold War have the presidents of the United States and Cuba met face to face.
But as President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro work to restore normal relations between their countries, their expected meeting Saturday at the Summit of the Americas would offer a chance for new momentum for those efforts.
Obama and Castro exchanged handshakes and cordial greetings Friday night, and there was increasing speculation that Obama would use the weekend meeting to announce his decision to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba has eagerly sought that move, for practical and symbolic reasons.
The U.S. long ago stopped accusing Cuba of conducting terrorism, and Obama has indicated that he was ready to take Cuba off the list. On Thursday, he suggested an announcement was imminent when he said that the State Department’s lengthy review of the designation is finally complete.
Mending ties with Cuba could form a cornerstone in the foreign policy legacy for Obama, with Latin America a rare bright spot for the president.
“As the United States begins a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, we hope it will create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama told civil society groups Friday. He said improved relations would empower Cubans to chart their own path to prosperity.
While no official meeting was scheduled, White House officials indicated that a substantive conversation between Obama and Castro seemed certain Saturday, hours before Obama was to return to Washington.
Obama and Castro spoke by telephone Wednesday before Obama left for the summit. It was only the second such call known to have occurred since the nations cut off relations half a century ago.
The first call was in December, shortly before Obama and Castro announced their intentions to restore full relations and reopen embassies in each other’s capitals.
They had hoped to open the embassies in time for the Panama summit, but progress on that front has been slow.
For Castro, getting off the U.S. terrorism list is a top issue because it would end Cuba’s pariah status and make it easier for Cuba to conduct financial transactions. But the U.S. is pushing for the easing of restrictions on American diplomats’ freedom of movement in Havana and stronger protections for human rights.
Obama made a point during his Panama trip to meet with about 15 Latin American activists, including two Cubans who have challenged Castro’s government. A contingent of pro-Castro Cubans who were supposed to participate in a larger civil society forum left shortly before Obama spoke, as a protest against the inclusion of Cuban dissidents.
The efforts by Obama and Castro were drawing praise from regional leaders, including Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, who said Obama was leaving a legacy of supporting Hispanics both in the U.S. and abroad.
But Obama and Castro must contend with hard-liners at home for whom distrust between America and Cuba still runs deep.