The historic rapprochement is set to dominate the Summit of the Americas in Panama, less than four months after a landmark announcement by Obama and Castro that they would seek to improve relations and boost trade and travel.
The two leaders spoke by phone on Wednesday before Obama left Washington and discussed the process of resuming formal diplomatic relations and opening embassies, the White House said.
They had separate agendas for most of the day but were scheduled to attend the start of the summit along with other regional leaders yesterday evening.
The pair are expected to meet today, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “We certainly do anticipate that they will have an opportunity to see each other at the summit, to have a discussion,” he said.
Apart from a couple of brief, informal encounters, the leaders of the US and Cuba have not had any significant meetings since Castro’s older brother, Fidel Castro, toppled US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 revolution that soon steered the Caribbean island into a close alliance with the Soviet Union.
US secretary of state John Kerry and Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez held talks at a Panama City hotel on Thursday night, the first meeting between the two countries’ top diplomats since the US’s John Foster Dulles and Cuba’s Gonzalo Guell got together in Washington in 1958.
Sitting face-to-face in a room visible through a large glass window, Kerry and Rodriguez talked for over two hours. A senior US State Department official described it as a “lengthy and very constructive discussion” and said they made progress.
Obama, who visited the site of a massive expansion of the Panama Canal by helicopter yesterday morning, appears to be close to removing Cuba from a US list of countries that it says sponsor terrorism.
The designation includes a series of automatic US sanctions. Cuba has cited its continued inclusion on the list as a hindrance to the planned restoration of full diplomatic ties and the opening of embassies that Obama and Castro announced last December. Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961.
The State Department has now recommended that Cuba be taken off the list, a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide said on Thursday. Obama is expected to agree, although it is not clear whether he will announce his decision during the summit.
A US official said Kerry and Rodriguez used their meeting to smooth the way for Cuba’s removal from the list. The US has pushed for Cuban assurances of no future support for terrorism, and Cuba has made the same demand of Washington.