By Matt Spetalnick and Daniel Trotta
PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama met Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday in the highest-level talks between the two countries in nearly 60 years, and the two men agreed to push ahead on improving relations after decades of hostility.
Describing their private meeting as "historic," Obama said the two countries can end the antagonism of the Cold War era, although he said he would continue to pressure the communist-led country on democracy and human rights.
"We are now in a position to move on a path toward the future," Obama told Castro as they met in Panama, where they were both attending a summit of leaders from across the Americas.
Speaking to reporters later, Obama made plain the two countries would still have their differences.
"We have very different views of how society should be organized and I was very direct with him that we are not going to stop talking about issues like democracy and human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press," he said.
The two men agreed in December to move to normalize relations, including seeking to restore diplomatic ties that were broken off by Washington in 1961.
Obama said he decided to overturn longstanding U.S. policy on Cuba because the old approach of open hostility and economic sanctions had failed to force through major changes on the island and it was time to try something new.
Since then, he has relaxed some restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.
At their 80-minute meeting on Saturday, Obama and Castro sat side by side in polished, wooden chairs in a small conference room. The mood cordial but businesslike.
Both wore dark suits and each nodded and smiled at some of the comments made by the other in brief statements to reporters before they began their talks.
Castro said he would continue to take steps toward normalizing relations with Washington, and was open to discussing human rights and other issues.
"So we are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient, very patient. Some things we will agree on; others we will disagree," said the 83-year-old leader, who took over as president of Cuba in 2008 when his older brother, Fidel Castro, stepped aside because of ill health.
Raul Castro has already undertaken some market-style reforms to try to strengthen Cuba's economy but he is moving cautiously and he has made clear that he has no intention of allowing an end to communist rule.
The last time the leaders of the two countries held a substantive meeting was in 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower was U.S. president and Fulgencio Batista was the U.S.-backed dictator in power in Havana. That meeting was also in Panama.
The Castro brothers toppled Batista in a revolution on January 1, 1959 and relations between the United States and Cuba quickly deteriorated.
Fidel Castro became a Cold War ally of the Soviet Union and the rivalries took the world to the brink of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962.
Now that relations are improving, Obama is close to removing Cuba from a U.S. list of countries that it says sponsor terrorism.
A senior U.S. official said Obama will make his decision in coming days and that efforts to reopen Cuban and U.S. embassies should be concluded relatively quickly.
Since 1977, the two countries have maintained contact through interests sections in Havana and Washington and in recent years they have cooperated on migration, drug trafficking and other issues.
Castro's government has called Cuba's inclusion on the state terrorism list a hindrance to restoring diplomatic ties.
Cuba was first placed on the list in 1982 when it supported Marxist rebellions in Latin America but that backing stopped with the end of the Cold War. The only other countries currently on the list are Iran, Syria and Sudan
Obama, a Democrat, has faced some criticism inside the U.S. Congress for his dramatic shift on Cuba policy. Critics say he has given up too much without first insisting on political reform on the island.
Obama said on Saturday that the new policy has majority support among Americans and the overwhelming backing of Cubans.
"The Cold War is over," he told reporters.
In the United States, polls show that support for a more collaborative relationship with Havana has grown steadily in recent years, even in the Cuban-American community that for decades fiercely opposed Fidel Castro and overwhelmingly opposed ties with Havana.
Obama can continue to ease specific sanctions but the trade embargo against Cuba can be overturned only by the Republican-controlled Congress.
The president's changes to Cuba policy are part of a broader approach of being open to finding common ground with traditional foes of the United States. Despite criticism from opponents, his government has pushed for the negotiations between Iran and major powers aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear program.
(Additional reporting by Dave Graham and David Alire Garcia; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray and Frances Kerry)