ARUN RATH, HOST:
Presidents Obama and Raul Castro of Cuba shook hands last night before opening ceremonies of the Summit of the Americas in Panama. But the informal meeting between the two men today was the most anticipated moment of the conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think what we have both concluded is that we can disagree with a spirit of respect and civility.
RATH: It is the first face-to-face meeting between leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years. We're joined now by NPR's Carrie Kahn in Panama. Carrie, what can you tell us about their meeting?
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It was quite the moment. The two sat in wooden armchairs with a small table between them. They shook hands twice. It was very cordial. Obama said that after 50 years of failed isolation policy, it was time for something new. He said the U.S. will continue to speak out about human rights abuses in Cuba, and he said he knows Cuba will continue to speak out about what it says are abuses in the U.S.
Raul Castro also said there would continue to be disagreements between the two, but he said with the pace of things in the world so fast, what we disagree on today, we could agree on tomorrow. So it was very cordial and indeed a historic moment of this conference.
RATH: Now, it was Latin American nations, even allies of the U.S., that demanded Cuba be part of the Summit for the first time. How was President Obama received there?
KAHN: He's gotten quite a warm reception from the majority of participants. There was a warm applause at the beginning of the speech, and every time he's been in public, he's introduced and praised for the opening of relations with Cuba. Like, at a gathering last night of civil society activists not especially fond of U.S. policies in Latin America, he received a long, strong applause.
You know, but there are many here upset with the U.S. over recent sanctions Obama slapped on seven top Venezuelan officials, and that's given plenty of ammunition to U.S. foes. The Cuba warming was going to really put Obama in a good light here, and the Venezuela issue has been a thorn in his side.
RATH: And what did Mr. Obama say in his speech? Did he respond to those critics?
KAHN: He did. He took them on clearly - very squarely. It was really interesting. He urged leaders to leave the past in the past. He said he recognizes the dark chapters in American history, but those are lessons learned. And that's why he speaks out on human rights abuses now. He said many of the ideological battles in the past interventions by the U.S. in Latin America, they occurred even before he was born.
And while not mentioning Venezuela, he said when he speaks on behalf of those jailed for their opinions, it's not meddling. It's doing the right thing. And he - this was interesting. He also urged his critics to stop using the U.S. as an excuse to help distract from dealing with political problems back home. And as he said, he asked them to work toward the future and deal with the real problems of today.
RATH: And what about the Cuban president there for the first time? What did Raul Castro have to say?
KAHN: It was pretty amazing. He came to the defense of Obama, had a lot of praise for him. You know, he spoke right after Obama, and he really lightened the mood from the onset, you know? He's 83 years old, definitely the elder statesman here, and he took full advantage of his time on the stage. He said - he started off saying he realizes each speaker is supposed to keep to eight minutes, but he's left out of - been left out of the Summit for six times, so he should get 48 minutes.
And he took it. He spoke for nearly an hour. He praised Obama. He called him an honest man. He said he didn't blame him for Cold War policies that were in place against Cuba even before he was born. Castro said he had read Obama's books and believes he - his humble origins have framed his values. It was a pretty stunning defense of Obama.
But you know, this is Castro, and he did talk for nearly an hour. And he gave everyone a lengthy lesson on U.S. aggression - what he calls U.S. aggression toward his country. And he was very staunch in his rejection of Cuba's designation by the U.S. State Department as a state that sponsors terrorism.
RATH: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Panama. Carrie, thank you.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.