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Obama Says Meeting With Cuban President Raul Castro Was 'Candid and Fruitful'

Obama will address questions following a historic meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro at a gathering of leaders in Panama.
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/ Source: NBC News

Following a historic meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, President Barack Obama said Saturday that the two countries will continue to have their differences, but can still work toward restoring diplomatic relations.

Obama, addressing questions before departing the Summit of the Americas in Panama, said that he and Castro had a "candid and fruitful conversation."

"The United States will continue to stand firmly for universal values and human rights,” Obama said while speaking to reporters before heading back to Washington. "At the same time, we agreed that we can continue to take steps forward that advance our mutual interests."

He added: "I'm optimistic that we'll continue to make progress and that this can indeed be a turning point — not just between the United States and Cuba, but for greater cooperation among countries across the region."

Speculation had swirled that after Saturday's meeting, Obama might announce the U.S. was dropping Cuba from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terror list, but Obama said that he still needs to examine the State Department's review of the designation, the completion of which was announced on Thursday.

Cuba shares the list with Iran, Syria and Sudan, even though the U.S. stopped accusing Cuba of terrorism years ago. "Cuba is not a threat to the United States," Obama said Saturday, rattling off terror groups and hazards that he is far more concerned about. "They don't implicate our national security in a direct way," he said.

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But the two countries “have very different views of how society should be organized,” Obama said. “We are not going to stop talking about issues like democracy and human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.”

A removal of Cuba from the terror list would not only erase a blemish on Cuba's image but also alleviate challenges to simple financial transactions.

The two leaders earlier acknowledged the complex history between their two nations at the sit-down, which lasted more than an hour.

Obama said that after 50 years, "it was time to try something new."

He said he envisioned more commerce and interactions between the U.S. and Cuba, and an American embassy in Havana and a Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C.

Castro said he agreed with Obama, but warned: "We need to be patient, very patient. Some things we will agree on, others we will disagree."

"But we are willing to make progress in the way the president has described. We can develop friendship between our two peoples," he said.

Obama and Castro first broke down barriers by shaking hands Friday — only the second time the two had done so.

The United States and Cuba severed diplomatic relations in 1961; two years after forces led by Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government.

Only Congress can fully lift the travel restrictions to Cuba, but Obama said Saturday that he had begun working with lawmakers to do so.

Obama said the thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S., which he announced in December, has widespread support in the U.S. and overwhelming support in Cuba. "I don't think it's something that we have to persuade anybody," he said.

Castro on Saturday said he applauds Obama's "courageous decision to get involved in this debate with Congress to put this to an end." Castro added that he thinks Obama is an "honest man," and he is willing to engage in respectful dialogue to begin to dissolve decades of contention between the two countries.

Cuba had been restricted by the U.S. from attending the Summit of the Americas since its inception more than two decades ago, but in another sign of thawing relations, was invited to take part along with 34 other countries this year.