US President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro shook hands and sat near each other Friday at a historic Summit of the Americas, a new milestone in efforts to shed decades of animosity.
Obama and Castro greeted each other as UN chief Ban Ki-moon looked on, before taking their seats with other regional leaders at a Panama City convention center.
The sight of Obama and Castro in the same room instantly became a potent symbol of their bid to renew diplomatic ties that were severed in 1961.
It was the first time that a Cuban leader attended the summit in its 21-year history.
A US official characterized the Obama-Castro greeting as an “informal interaction,” adding that “there was not a substantive conversation between the two leaders.”
A widely anticipated broader conversation — the first between US and Cuban leaders since ties broke in 1961 — is expected on Saturday.
The two leaders briefly shook hands once before, at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg in 2013.
“This summit in Panama has such a special dimension,” Organization of American States secretary general Jose Miguel Insulza told the gathering, noting it was the first time all 35 nations were represented.
Ban added: “The presence here today of President Raul Castro of Cuba embodies a longing expressed by many in the region.”
All the regional leaders then headed to a private dinner.