POLITICS

Obama and Castro meet in first sit-down between U.S. and Cuban leaders in over half century

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands during their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, Saturday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands during their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, Saturday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

History was made at the Summit of the Americas.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro held the first substantive meeting between leaders of their countries in more than five decades.

In a small conference room in a Panama City convention center, Obama and Castro sat side by side in a bid to inject fresh momentum into their months-old effort to restore diplomatic ties. Obama said he wanted to "turn the page" on old divisions, although he acknowledged that significant differences between the governments would remain.

"This is obviously a historic meeting," Obama said shortly after the two sat down. "It was my belief it was time to try something new, that it was important for us to engage with Cuban government."

"And more importantly, with Cuban people," the president added.

Castro told the U.S. president he was ready discuss sensitive issues including human rights and freedom of the press, saying, "Everything can be on the table." But he also cautioned that the two countries have "agreed to disagree."

"We are willing to make progress in the way the president has described," Castro said.

The remarkable gathering played out on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, which this year included Cuba for the first time. Although the meeting wasn't publicly announced in advance, White House aides had suggested the two leaders were looking for an opportunity to meet while in Panama and to discuss the ongoing efforts to open embassies in Havana and Washington, among other issues.

In brief remarks to reporters at the start of the meeting, Obama acknowledged that Cuba, too, would continue raising concerns about U.S. policies. Earlier in the day, Castro launched into an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the U.S. in his speech to fellow leaders attending the summit.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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