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Barack Obama, Cuba's Raul Castro Shake Hands at Summit

The face-to-face greeting comes ahead of a more substantive discussion between the two leaders in Panama City on Saturday.
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/ Source: NBC News

President Barack Obama shook hands and chatted with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama Friday ahead of a face-to-face discussion scheduled for Saturday aimed at thawing dismal relations between the two nations.

The brief encounter was deeply significant, and was the first time in more than 50 years that leaders of Cuba and the United States have spent real time together.

"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 a gathering of civil society groups.

While a U.S. official characterized the greeting as an "informal interaction" and not a substantive conversation, the two leaders are expected to meet Saturday. The summit is the first time Cuba has been included among the Central, North and South American countries invited to attend. For decades, the U.S. had blocked Cuba from participating.

The Obama administration in December announced it would restore diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba, after decades of a tense relationship tracing back to the Cold War.

Obama is also considering a recommendation from the State Department to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror list.

The last time President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met face-to-face was in December 2013 — for a three-second handshake during Nelson Mandela's memorial service.


— Phil Helsel and F. Brinley Bruton

The Associated Press contributed to this report.