Obama, Castro speak by phone ahead of meeting
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President Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro are expected to meet Saturday, a landmark encounter as the two nations work toward rebuilding full diplomatic ties. 
 
Obama and Castro may meet Friday night in Panama, when they attend opening events for the Summit of the Americas with other leaders from the Western Hemisphere. But a more substantial conversation will likely occur the next day, the White House said.  
 
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As a prelude to their historic meeting, Obama spoke with Castro by phone before departing Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. It was the second time the leaders have phoned each other since they announced they would begin to normalize relations last December. 
 
Administration officials say the move to normalize relations has been instrumental in advancing U.S. interests in Latin America, a region that has strongly opposed its longstanding policy of isolating Cuba.
 
The seventh Summit of the Americas will be the first to include Cuba, who presence was previously opposed by the U.S. government. The rapprochement between the two nations is expected to dominate the gathering. 
 
When Obama and Castro talk in person, it will be the first substantiative meeting between the leaders of the U.S. and Cuba since the island nation’s 1959 communist revolution led by Raúl’s older brother, Fidel. 
 
Obama and Castro shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013, but have never had a significant in-person conversation.
 
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Friday that the details of the meeting were still being worked out by both governments.  
 
Rhodes said Obama and Castro would not hold a formal bilateral meeting, but “will have the opportunity to see each other at the summit tomorrow and have a discussion.”
 
On Thursday night before the summit began, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, the first meeting between top U.S. and Cuban diplomats since 1958. 
 
The high-level discussions could help accelerate the process of re-establishing ties with Cuba, which includes reopening long-shuttered embassies and removing barriers to trade and travel. 
 
Obama is poised to announce a decision whether to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which the Castro government has long cited as an obstacle to repairing relations. 
 
The listing is a mark of shame for Cuba; Iran, Syria and Sudan are the only other nations on the list. International banks have been wary of dealing with Cuba because of its listing out of fear they could incur sanctions from the U.S. 
 
The State Department has concluded its review of Cuba’s status on the list, which includes certifying whether it has aided terrorist organizations within the past six months. But the White House reiterated Friday Obama will not make a final decision before an interagency review is complete. 
 
The president, however, has hinted that he could act soon to remove Cuba from the list. During a stop in Jamaica on Thursday, he called the list a "powerful tool to isolate those countries that genuinely do support terrorism." 
 
"As circumstances change, then that list will change as well," he said.
 
Even though Cuba remains on the list as the summit begins, Rhodes claimed that will not serve as an impediment toward continuing talks, saying the Cubans “understand our process.”
 
But reminders of past tensions were apparent in Panama. A confrontation on Wednesday between a group of Cuban dissidents attending the summit in Panama and a large group of supporters of Cuba’s government highlighted difficulties for the two countries. 
 
Congressional critics of Obama’s Cuba policy said the incident highlighted ongoing concerns about the government’s human-rights abuses. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said it created a “sickening start to this summit.”
 
In an effort to emphasize U.S. concern for the Cuban government’s abuses, Obama is attending a forum with members of Cuba’s dissident movements as well as government supporters. He will also attend a separate roundtable of civil-society representatives from Latin American nations, including Cuba.
 
— Updated at 3:57 p.m.