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*-- Obama optimistic for Cuba relations, Castro recalls past confrontations with U.S. --*

PANAMA CITY, Panama (UPI) - Leaders of the United States and Cuba did something Saturday they hadn't done since the spring of 1959, all the way back to the Eisenhower administration: Meet diplomatically face-to-face.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro -- the brother of longtime ruler Fidel Castro -- met at the Summit of the Americas in Panama Saturday, and the visit is the talk of the conference.

Obama briefly met Castro Friday night, exchanging handshakes and greeting one another, but it was Saturday's conversation that made big news in Panama City. During their meet, the two leaders discussed various issues -- most notably, the strained or nonexistent relations between Washington and Havana.

The meeting arrived at a time the U.S. government is considering the removal of Cuba from its very short list of nations considered state sponsors or terrorism. In 1982, Cuba was added to the list and joined Iran, Syria and Sudan there.

"It was time for us to try something new," Obama said at the summit Saturday. "We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future.

"Over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries."

"We are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient, very patient," Castro said. "We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow."

Before Saturday, the last time any of the nations' executives met diplomatically was April 1959 when newly minted Cuban leader Fidel Castro visited Washington, D.C. That meet occurred less than four months after a long and bloody rise to power was completed by Fidel Castro -- which ousted U.S.-approved Cuban president Fulgencio Batista.

The last time both nations' presidents met diplomatically face-to-face was even longer: A 1956 meeting between Batista and Eisenhower.

Terse and even potentially catastrophic difficulties between Washington and Havana persisted from that point on, and directly resulted in the total severing of diplomatic ties by former President John F. Kennedy -- who himself navigated a vicious onslaught of difficulty at the hands of the communist nation.

But even though the Cold War has been dormant for 25 years, Raul Castro on Saturday aired a long list of grievances that his nation has held toward the United States for decades -- an indication that Cuba might not be ready yet to forget about the past.

For instance, Castro specifically mentioned two of the nations' most dangerous clashes in history -- the CIA's botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the U.S. government's handling of terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Rhetoric aside, it does appear though that Obama and Castro made clear strides with the meeting. Obama has already said he favors restoring diplomatic ties with the Caribbean nation, and Castro said at the Summit that consistent future cooperation between the two governments might not be too far in the offing.

"We might disagree on something today on which we could agree tomorrow," Castro said.

This weekend's is the seventh Summit of the Americas, which are hosted by different nations in North, South and Central America. The United States held the first, in 1994, and Suriname has been selected to host the next, in 2018. The summits are typically held every few years, and offer leaders from all nations in the Americas to air grievances, discuss issues and cooperate with one another on various matters.

However, Saturday was the first time in the conference's history that Cuba was officially represented. It's inclusion on the state sponsor of terror list -- and the decades of its toxic relationship with the United States -- were reason enough for Washington to block Cuba's participation at every one of the previous summits.

"The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We are looking to the future," Obama said before meeting with Castro. "I'm not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born."

Although no official decision has yet been publicized regarding Cuba's inclusion on the terror sponsor list, Obama is expected to sign off on it.

In addition to poor relations, a trade embargo has also dogged Cuba for much of the last half century. The regulation forbids American businesses from dealing with the island in any way -- which, in turn, has created a highly volatile economy beneath both Castro administrations.

A White House aide, though, said that shutting out Havana in various issues has also harmed the United States.

"Our Cuba policy, instead of isolating Cuba, was isolating the United States in our own backyard," White House Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes said in a New York Times report Saturday. "It is going to open up the door not just to greater engagement with Cuba, but potentially more constructive relations across the hemisphere."

Argentinian President Nicolas Maduro also made use of his speech time Saturday to blast the United States, over what he said were intrusions on his government by Washington.

"I respect you but, I don't have confidence in you, President Obama," Maduro said.


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