Cuban President Raul Castro delivered a stunning defense of President Barack Obama on Saturday, absolving him of responsibility for the U.S. blockade against Cuba hours before the two were expected to hold the first major meeting between a U.S. and Cuban president in more than half a century.
Castro, in his speech to the Summit of the Americas, ran through an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the U.S. over more than a century, in a vivid display of how raw emotions still run over U.S. attempts to undermine Cuba's government. Then in an abrupt about face, he said there were many U.S. presidents at fault for that history — but that Obama wasn't one of them.
"I apologize to President Obama and to others here. I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution," Castro said. "I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this."
"In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man," Castro added, a remarkable vote of confidence from the leader of a country that hasn't had diplomatic relations with the U.S. in more than 50 years.
Castro's comments came as he and Obama were expected to meet on the sidelines of the summit in Panama City in a bid to inject fresh momentum into their efforts to restore normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Not since 1958 have a U.S. and Cuban leader convened a substantial meeting. Dwight Eisenhower and Fulgencio Batista met that year, and the following year, former Cuban President Fidel Castro met with Richard Nixon, who was vice president at the time.
History is being made at the Summit of the Americas.
President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are holding the first substantive meeting between leaders of their countries in more than five decades.
The face-to-face exchange is the latest step in the effort the leaders announced in December to move past years of suspicion and hostility and restore diplomatic relations between the American superpower and the communist island nation situated less than 100 miles off the U.S. southern coast.
Obama and Castro shook hands and exchanged pleasantries at the summit's opening Friday night.
They also spoke by telephone on Wednesday before Obama departed the White House.
2:40 p.m. (1940 GMT, 3:40 EDT)
President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico is expressing support for negotiations to improve relations between Cuba and the United States, countries he describes as "two great friends of Mexico."
Pena Nieto says, "The leaders of both nations have reminded the world that openness to dialogue is charged with promise and possibilities."
Pena Nieto comments came at a plenary session of the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
1:45 p.m. (1845 GMT, 2:45 p.m. EDT)
U.S. President Barack Obama and President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia have concluded a meeting on the margins of the Summit of the Americas.
The White House says the leaders noted there has been progress since a 2012 summit on the Colombia peace process.
Obama also expressed his continued support for Colombia as it works through victims' rights and other issues related to the peace talks.
He told Santos the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to the peace process symbolizes shared hope for a stable and lasting peace in Colombia.
1:30 p.m. (1830 GMT, 2:30 p.m. EDT)
Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro is holding out an olive branch of sorts to President Barack Obama, saying he's willing to forgive a long history of aggressions against his socialist government and work to repair relations.
The two countries have seen relations fall to a new low since the White House slapped sanctions on senior officials for alleged human rights abuses. In a 40-minute speech at the Summit of the Americas, Maduro said any effort to normalize relations depends on the U.S repealing the financial and travel sanctions.
Maduro said he's been waiting for more than a year for the Obama administration to respond to his invitation to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2010.
Obama wasn't present for Maduro's remarks at the Summit of the Americas. He had stepped away from the plenary session earlier to attend a bilateral meeting with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos.
1:15 p.m. (1815 GMT, 2:15 p.m. EDT)
Cuba is dedicating a special TV channel to live coverage of the Summit of the Americas, but relatively few in Havana seemed to be watching when Raul Castro made his impassioned speech. Many capital residents said they had no idea it was going to be on.
Sixty-nine-year-old retired lawyer Paco Soler was one of the few who caught Castro's remarks, watching from a bar in the Vedado district.
Soler was struck by Castro's remark absolving President Obama of blame for the past.
Soler says that comment is "an elegant way to create a positive atmosphere for the possible meeting between the two presidents."
Seventy-five-year-old retiree Diego Reyes saw footage of last night's historic handshake between the two presidents on TV but was unimpressed.
In his words, "What I want is for them not to shake hands so much, not to talk so much, but to do something concrete that fixes something."
He complained that since the Dec. 17 announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would move to restore diplomatic relations, "nothing has changed for regular Cubans. And what we're waiting for is an improvement."
—Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana.
12:15 p.m. (1715 GMT, 1:15 p.m. EDT)
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is one of several leaders criticizing recent U.S. sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials whom Washington accuses of human rights abuses related to anti-government protests last year.
"This good moment for hemispheric relations can no longer allow unilateral measures and policies of isolation in general, and they are always counterproductive and ineffective," Rousseff says, according to a translation of her remarks into Spanish. "For that reason we reject the adoption of sanctions against Venezuela."
She adds that the South American regional bloc UNASUR supports dialogue to ease political tensions in Venezuela.
12:15 p.m. (1715 GMT, 1:15 p.m. EDT)
One prominent face is missing as leaders of the Americas meet in Panama.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet scrapped plans to attend in order to oversee her country's recovery from devastating floods that have killed at least 26 people and left more than 100 missing.
Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz is representing Chile in her stead.
11:45 a.m. (1645 GMT, 12:45 p.m. EDT)
Cuba's President is offering effusive praise for President Barack Obama and his decision to restore ties with the communist island even as he catalogues more than a century of grievances against the United States.
Raul Castro says Obama bears no responsibility for past aggressions against Cuba.
In a speech at the Summit of Americas he thanked Obama for his historic decision to try to overcome the past, beginning with his consideration to remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
To the applause of hemispheric leaders, Castro drew attention to Obama's modest origins, saying it was the source for his decision to turn a new page in relations with the former Cold War enemy.
11:30 a.m. (1630 GMT, 12:30 p.m. EDT)
Cuban President Raul Castro has lightened the mood at the Summit of the Americas with a wry crack at his country's longtime absence from the gathering.
Castro noted that the leaders' speeches were supposed to last around eight minutes. But he asked for special dispensation.
"Since you owe me six summits when you excluded me, six times eight is 48," he said to laughter.
This is the first time Cuba has taken part in the summit.
11:15 a.m. (1615 GMT, 1215 EDT)
U.S. President Barack Obama is pushing back against Latin America's criticism of his recent sanctioning of Venezuelan officials for alleged human rights abuses
During his speech at the Summit of Americas, Obama said that when the United States speaks against injustices it sees around the world, it's not seeking to meddle in the affairs of other nations but rather to live up to the democratic ideals it defends at home.
While he didn't cite Venezuela by name, he said the U.S. would continue to promote the right of Latin Americans to peacefully demonstrate against governments without fear of arrest or retribution.
He cited the history of segregation in the southern United States as evidence that the U.S.'s record for freedom is far from perfect — a point made earlier by Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa,.
He noted that many of the ideological battles and dark chapters of past U.S. interventions in Latin America date from before he was born. He encouraged leaders to work together to solve the problems of the future in areas ranging from protection of the environment to reducing inequality.
11:15 a.m. (1615 GMT, 1215 EDT)
President Barack Obama blasted back at Ecuador's President Rafael Correa for his criticism of the United States.
Correa says that when it comes to Latin America, the U.S. has failed to live up to its founders' ideals of freedom. Obama responded that he is very aware that the U.S. has "dark chapters" of its own history, but the lessons learned are precisely why he speaks out on human rights abuses abroad.
Obama says talking about past grievances and using the United States as an excuse for domestic political problems won't bring progress.
Obama reproved Correa for trying to silence criticism of his government by prosecuting owners of some of the country's biggest media outlets.
Obama says he doesn't like media coverage that criticizes him either. But he says democracy means everyone has the opportunity to offer opinions.
11:00 a.m. (1600 GMT, 12:00 p.m. EDT)
President Barack Obama says when it comes to relations with Cuba, the United States will not be imprisoned by the past.
Obama says he's looking for a new relationship with Cuba that's not caught up in ideological arguments. He says the Cold War is over and he's not interested in battles that started before he was born.
The U.S. president spoke to assembled leaders at the Summit of the Americas ahead of a highly anticipated meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday.
He says both he and Castro would say there will continue to be significant differences between their two countries. But he says reopening diplomatic relations allows more Americans to travel to Cuba and gives more opportunity and resource to the Cuban people.
10:45 a.m. (1545 GMT, 11:45 EDT)
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is borrowing the U.S. Declaration of Independence to take a swipe at critics at home and abroad.
The leftist leader has been accused by human rights groups of trying to silence criticism of his government by prosecuting owners of some of the country's biggest media outlets.
On Saturday, in a speech at the Summit of Americas, he cited a history of U.S. military interventions and strong-arm tactics to denounce what he said was the failure of the United States to live up to Thomas Jefferson's ideals of freedom when it comes to its relationship with Latin America.
"The elites of Latin America are incapable of understanding that inalienable rights are for everyone," said Correa, a U.S.-trained economist.
10:15 a.m. (1515 GMT, 11:15 EDT)
The changing face of politics in Latin America: sitting behind Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos are two openly gay cabinet members
Education Minister Gina Parody is a partner of Trade Minister Cecilia Alvarez. Both are seated behind Santos at the start of the plenary session at the Summit of the Americas.
Conservative critics blasted the couple after they spoke publicly about their relationship for the first time late last year. But that hasn't prevented Santos from singing their praises, especially of Parody, whose focus on improving the quality of education in Colombia has made her into one of the country's most popular politicians.
9:45 a.m. (1445 GMT, 10:45 a.m. EDT)
Its kickoff time for a marathon session of speeches at the plenary session of the Summit of the Americas.
More than 30 heads of state have gathered inside the Atlapa Convention Center.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak fifth, while a highly anticipated speech President Raul Castro, who is representing communist Cuba at the summit for the first time, comes near the end of the morning session.
Each leader is expected to address delegates for no more than 10 minutes but that may not stop some.
At the 2009 summit in Trinidad and Tobago, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega delivered an hour-long denunciation of U.S. military incursions in Latin America.
Copyright: Associated Press