President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are expected to speak in-person on Saturday—a historic and much anticipated face-to-face discussion aimed at thawing chilly relations between the two nations which began during the Cold War-era.
The White House said details on the upcoming meeting during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City were still being worked out on Friday. However, steps toward what Rhodes called a discussion of "normalizing of relations" moved forward on Wednesday when Obama and Castro spoke by phone.
"We certainly anticipate that they will have a discussion tomorrow on the context of the summit," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in a press briefing on Friday.
The last encounter between the two leaders was during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service when Obama and Castro shook hands. Saturday’s meeting, which White House officials stressed would be on the sidelines of the summit’s events, is expected to be one of the highlights to come out of the summit.
This week's 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.
"I think they understood that this is obviously a very unique occurrence in the Americas—the first Summit of the Americas that Cuba's participated in," Rhodes said of the two leaders' phone conversation earlier in the week.
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Rhodes did not share updates on a decision on whether Cuba will be removed from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsored countries.
The summit has also provided an opportunity for the U.S. to underscore its commitment to working with regional leaders to help curb human and drug trafficking, criminal activities Obama said “thrives when people feel they have no other pathway to success.”
During a roundtable of Central American leaders on Friday, Guatemala President Otto Pérez Molina thanked the U.S. for its commitment to the region and discussed progress made since last year’s migration crisis of unaccompanied minors at the southern border with Mexico.
“We know we have challenges but that the United States is interested in making sure challenges are faced together,” Molina said adding he looked forward to working with the U.S. to find long- and mid-range solutions to other challenges.
President Obama noted his budget includes $1 billion to support initiatives in the region and said he looked forward to brainstorming governance and transparency solutions with other nations.
“It is up to us to make sure the United States stands in solidarity and partnership with the countries around this table,” Obama said.
— Halimah Abdullah