Obama kicks off historic meeting with Raúl Castro

Obama kicks off historic meeting with Raúl Castro
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President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro shook hands on Monday, kicking off a historic meeting at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana.

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It is the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since Obama landed in Cuba on Sunday for a two-day visit intended to cement a new policy of openness between the former Cold War foes.

Obama and Castro briefly exchanged pleasantries through an interpreter and smiled for the cameras.

The president told Castro about his time so far in Havana, which included a stop at a cathedral and dinner at a privately owned restaurant.

"We had a great tour yesterday," Obama said. "Enjoyed it.

"And we had a great dinner," he added.

It marked the third meeting between Obama and Castro since both leaders announced in December 2014 they would begin to normalize relations.

Monday’s sit-down is the most substantial attempt yet by both leaders to make progress on the 15-month-old thaw, a process that has proceeded in fits and starts amid longstanding disputes over economics, politics and human rights.

"Obviously, our intention has always been to get a ball rolling, knowing that change wasn't going to happen overnight,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News that aired Monday. “We felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change.

"Change is going to happen, and I think that Raúl Castro understands that,” he added.

Obama is expected to press Castro on adopting political and economic reforms, and the Cuban leader is expected to pressure the president on the U.S. trade embargo.

Both leaders are expected to address the media following their huddle.

Obama’s trip to Cuba, the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years, has already produced some striking images that were unimaginable just over a year ago.

The president held his hand over his heart as a Cuban military honor guard played the "Star-Spangled Banner" inside the Palace of the Revolution, the center of Cuba’s communist government.

Earlier in the morning, the president posed for a photo with the U.S. and Cuban delegations in Havana’s Revolutionary Square, with large sculptures of revolutionary icons Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos in the backdrop.

Obama was there to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial to Cuban independence hero José Martí, where both nations' national anthems were played.

The president called the wreath laying “a historic moment” and said it was “pretty remarkable to hear the anthems here, side by side, in Havana with the president of the United States.”