Historic meeting of Obama and Raul Castro in New York

Encounter is first with a Cuban leader on US soil in more than six decades

US president Barack Obama extends his hand to Cuban president Raul Castro at the start of their meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York, September 29th, 2015. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

US president Barack Obama extends his hand to Cuban president Raul Castro at the start of their meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York, September 29th, 2015. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

 

US president Barack Obama has met Cuban president Raul Castro at the United Nations in New York, marking the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries on US soil in more than six decades.

The encounter, the first between the heads of state of the countries in the US since Mr Castro’s brother Fidel led the 1959 communist revolution, is the latest sign of improved relations between long-time foes who restored diplomatic relations in July after a 54-year break.

Mr Obama and Mr Castro met on the fringes of the UN General Assembly. The US president was joined by secretary of state John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice and US ambassador to the UN, Irish-born Samantha Power, at the meeting.

Shaking hands

The two leaders were photographed smiling and shaking hands, with Mr Castro making a joke about how much taller Mr Obama was.

It is the first visit to the US for Mr Castro (84) as Cuban president.

According to the White House, the two leaders spoke about the additional steps each country could take to “deepen bilateral co-operation”.

Mr Obama highlighted the recent US regulatory changes that will allow more Americans to travel and carry out business with Cuba, while helping to improve the lives of the Cuban people, the White House said.

The leaders also discussed the recent visit by Pope Francis to their countries.

The US and Cuban presidents stunned the world when they announced on December 17th last year that they were restoring diplomatic ties broken off in 1961 amid President John F Kennedy’s concerns about the expansion of Soviet influence in the Americas.

Mr Obama and Mr Castro spoke by phone for about 45 minutes at the time of that historic announcement. They met for the first bilateral meeting between the leaders of the countries since the Cuban revolution at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April.

The two presidents spoke again in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to Cuba and the US earlier this month. The pontiff played a key role in encouraging and helping the countries to restore diplomatic ties.

This visit marks the first by a Cuban leader to the UN General Assembly since Fidel Castro’s appearance in 2000. Fidel made several visits to the international body, famously speaking for four and a half hours at the assembly in 1960 - the longest speech ever made at the UN.

Recent thaw

Despite the recent thaw in relations between the US and Cuba, they still have significant divisions.

Speaking ahead of their meeting on Monday, Mr Castro said in his address to the UN General Assembly that the two countries could only normalise relations if Washington lifted a five-decade-long trade embargo and returned the naval base at Guantanamo Bay that the US has controlled for more than a century.

Mr Obama hailed the US-Cuban détente in his own address to the assembly on Monday and said he was confident the US Congress would eventually lift the embargo. The president said the US does not intend to return the naval base to Cuba.

He faces strong opposition among Republicans in Congress in his efforts to lift the embargo, particularly among Cuban-Americans who see the rapprochement with Havana as legitimising an undemocratic regime that abuses human rights and suppresses free speech.