US, Cuba hold highest-level meeting in more than 50 years

The closed-door meeting took place at a Panama City hotel on the eve of a Western Hemisphere summit.

FILE: US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a media briefing at the US Embassy in London on 21 February, 2015. Picture: AFP

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA - The US and Cuban foreign ministers met in Panama on Thursday, a US official said, in the highest-level meeting between the two sides since the earliest days of the Cuban revolution more than half a century ago.

The discussions between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez marked the first time the two nations' chief diplomats have met since a historic opening by President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, that was announced on 17 December last year.

The closed-door meeting took place at a Panama City hotel on the eve of a Western Hemisphere summit where Obama and Castro will cross paths. The State Department had said earlier that Kerry and Rodriguez planned to meet on Thursday

Other regional leaders also are gathering in Panama City for the Summit of the Americas held every three years.

An earlier statement from the US State Department said nothing about whether Obama may remove Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that is widely expected following the rapprochement between the two countries.

But a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide said on Thursday that the State Department had recommended that Obama remove Cuba from the list.

Obama's decision to move towards restoring diplomatic ties marks a sea change in relations since the Cuban revolution, when US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the island on 1 January, 1959, as Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries seized control.

John Foster Dulles and Gonzalo Guell were the last US and Cuban foreign ministers to hold a formal meeting, which took place in Washington, DC, on 22 September, 1958, said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The highest-level meeting after the revolution took place in April 1959, between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro, who had become his country's prime minister in early 1959. Relations between the United States and Cuba rapidly deteriorated soon after.