Obama, Castro shake hands at Americas summit inauguration

Panama City: US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro shook hands prior to the inauguration of the 7th Summit of the Americas, a meeting in which the Communist nation is participating for the first time.

The gathering in the Panamanian capital will be remembered as the "reconciliation summit" because of a scheduled meeting on Saturday between Obama and Castro, in what will be the first face-to-face discussions between the leaders of these two countries in nearly 60 years, Spanish news agency Efe reported.

The summit meeting officially kicked off on Friday night with an inauguration speech by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela.

But the most memorable moment occurred minutes before, when Obama and Castro crossed paths before entering the Anayansi Theatre and greeted one another with a handshake as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon looked on.

The encounter was brief but historic, Varela, Ban and outgoing Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary-General Jose Maria Insulza all noted in their speeches at the opening ceremony.

In his speech, Varela hailed the "courage and will" of heads of state and government who have put aside historical differences in an effort to bring "better days for their people and our hemisphere".

Insulza, who is stepping down as head of the OAS after 10 years, said to rousing applause that the Panama summit marks "the first time in the history of the Americas" that the summit brings together the heads of state and government of all of the hemisphere's nations.

In fact, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet did not attend the summit, which concludes late on Saturday afternoon, due to the severe floods in her country's northern region.

The UN secretary general also stressed the same point, noting that the presence of Obama and Castro on this occasion represents the fulfilment of a long standing wish for many in the region.

During the inauguration ceremony, Obama and Castro sat near each other but were separated by the presidents of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and El Salvador, Salvador Sanchez Ceren.

The handshake was a prelude to planned private bilateral discussions between Obama and Castro on Saturday, roughly four months after the two leaders simultaneously announced plans to work to restore full diplomatic relations.

Washington severed diplomatic ties with Havana in 1961 and has maintained an economic embargo against the Communist-ruled island since late 1962.

Since December's announcement, senior diplomats from both countries have met several times to discuss the re-opening of embassies and the Obama administration has taken limited steps to ease the economic embargo Washington imposed on Cuba in 1962.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez came together on Thursday in Panama City for what a US spokesperson described as "an extensive and very constructive discussion".

One of the sticking points in the normalisation process is Havana's demand that Cuba be removed from the State Department's list of nations characterised as sponsors of terrorism.

The last time US and Cuban leaders engaged in a substantive discussion was in 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower met with Fulgencio Batista, the strongman ousted by Fidel Castro three years later.

The reconciliation of the two Cold War enemies, however, is temporarily overshadowing growing tensions between Washington and oil-rich Venezuela, Cuba's main ally.

Those tensions were exacerbated last month when the Obama administration decided to impose economic sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials accused of rights abuses.

In that March 9 executive order, Obama also referred to leftist-led Venezuela as a threat to US national security, although the White House has since backtracked and said that South American nation is not a threat.

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