Obama and Castro 'to make history' in Panama

US president expected to announce Cuba will be removed from terror list in effort to improve relations

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro in South Africa in 2013
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

United States President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, are preparing for a historic meeting in Panama City this evening, a significant step forward in the thawing of relations between the former Cold War enemies.

The two heads of state will sit down to dinner with 33 other regional leaders at the Summit of the Americas, marking the first time a US and Cuban president have shared a table since Fidel Castro led the Cuban revolution in 1959, The Daily Telegraph reported.

There are no official plans for the pair to hold a bilateral meeting during the two-day summit, but they will have the opportunity to meet and discuss matters informally.

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The two presidents are "on the verge of making history", said the BBC's Will Grant. "For Mr Obama, this is an important diplomatic step which shows to the Cuban leader he is a man of his word when it comes to a willingness to normalise relations with the communist island.”

In December, Obama made the historic move to normalise ties between the two countries, putting an end to the 50-year-old feud. Relations had been frozen since 1961, when the US severed diplomatic ties and imposed a trade embargo after Cuba's revolution.

On the eve of the meeting, the country's foreign ministers, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, met yesterday in Panama City in the highest-level talks in over half a century.

The US State Department said the meeting between Kerry and Rodriguez was "lengthy and very constructive" and they "agreed they [had] made progress and would continue to work to resolve outstanding issues”, Reuters reported.

Obama is expected to use the meeting to announce Cuba will finally be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a list that includes Iran, Syria and Sudan. Cuba's inclusion on the terror list has been a major stumbling block in the attempts to normalise relations between the two countries.

Senator Ben Cardin, a leading member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said the US State Department's recommendation that Cuba be taken off the list was the "the result of a months-long technical review" and would be "an important step forward in our efforts to forge a more fruitful relationship with Cuba".

If Obama does choose to remove Cuba from the list, the Republican-led Congress could still decide to veto the decision, scuppering progress that has been made.

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