President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, head of an oppressive communist regime that forbids free speech, persecutes the faithful, tortures dissidents and jails homosexuals for "re-education," shook hands Friday evening in Panama.
Obama, who in the 2008 campaign vowed to engage with America's adversaries, seeks to restore ties between the Cold War foes. Experts excpect him to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Obama and Castro exchanged handshakes and cordial greetings Friday night. A White House official confirmed the two men shook hands and spoke briefly, the AP reported.
"This was an informal interaction and there was not a substantive conversation between the two leaders," the official told the AP.
Obama had called Castro on the phone on Wednesday, setting up the meeting that will take place over the weekend.
"As we move towards the process of normalization, we'll have our differences government to government with Cuba on many issues. Just as we differ at times with other nations within the Americas, just as we differ with our closest allies," Obama said earlier on Friday.
"As the United States begins a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, we hope it will create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people," Obama told civil society groups Friday. He said improved relations would empower Cubans to chart their own path to prosperity.
But he also said Cuba can pretty much do whatever it wants.
"The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past," he said.