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Obama marks "historic meeting" with Cuban leader Raul Castro

Last Updated Apr 11, 2015 9:15 PM EDT

President Obama sat down with with Cuban leader Raul Castro in Panama on Saturday, marking the first formal meeting between U.S. and Cuban heads of state in more than half a century.

"This is obviously an historic meeting," Mr. Obama told reporters as Castro sat beside him.

The president said 50 years of hostility had not produced any constructive change in the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. and "it was time for us to try something new."

Mr. Obama, who's in Panama attending the Summit of the Americas, reiterated his commitment to normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, an initiative he began last December.

"We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future," he said. "Over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries."

Mr. Obama stressed that the two countries will continue to disagree at times and said the U.S. will continue to speak out on behalf of democracy and human rights. When Mr. Obama said he expected Cuban leaders to continue to air their concerns about U.S. policy as well, as Castro did during an earlier speech on Saturday, the Cuban leader smiled.

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President Obama shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center April 11, 2015, in Panama City.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Castro noted the long and complicated history between the U.S. and Cuba in his own remarks, but he stressed his willingness to make progress on re-establishing diplomatic relations. He said he's willing to discuss any issue, including human rights and freedom of the press, as their dialogue continues.

Mr. Obama did not address his looming decision on whether to remove Cuba from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. The president announced Thursday that the State Department has finished its review of the decision, and he said Saturday that he expects to make a final determination soon.

"I have been on the road, and I want to make sure that I have the chance to read it, study it before we announce publicly what the policy outcome is going to be," the president said at a news conference.

Lawmakers in Congress would have 45 days to review the decision before it is implemented, but their power to block the move is limited. According to CBS News' Pamela Falk, the U.S. laws that authorize the terror listing give Congress the option of passing a joint resolution, or a bill to block a nation's removal, but the president has the power to override such a move.

Republicans who oppose Mr. Obama's shift in policy regarding Cuba have vowed to do what they can to stymie the normalization of relations between the two countries. GOP leaders have shown no willingness to begin lifting the Cuban trade embargo -- a step Mr. Obama again called for on Saturday. Some Republicans have also suggested blocking any funding to set up a U.S. Embassy in Havana and blocking the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

According to a senior administration official, Mr. Obama and Castro discussed some of the practical issues facing the effort to set up embassies, including the need to ensure the Cuban embassy in Washington can access the U.S. banking system, and the ability of diplomats in both countries to be able to move around freely.

At a plenary session earlier on Saturday, both Mr. Obama and Castro spoke about the evolution of the U.S.-Cuba relationship in remarks before the other heads of state who attended the summit.

"The United States is focused on the future," Mr. Obama said. "The Cold War's been over for a long time. I'm not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born."

Castro, who's attending this year's summit for the first time, spoke at length and with considerable passion about the history of U.S. attempts to undermine Cuba's government. But he absolved Mr. Obama of any blame, in what many observers deemed a fairly stunning attempt at rapprochement just hours before the first meeting between the two leaders.

"I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this," Castro said. "In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man."