Cuban President Raul Castro delivered a stunning defense of President Barack Obama on Saturday, absolving him of responsibility for the US blockade against Cuba hours before the two were expected to hold the first major meeting between a US and Cuban president in more than half a century.
Castro, in his speech to the Summit of the Americas, ran through an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the US over more than a century, in a vivid display of how raw emotions still run over US attempts to undermine Cuba's government. Then in an abrupt about face, he said there were many US presidents at fault for that history - but that Obama wasn't one of them.
"I apologize to President Obama and to others here. I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution," Castro said. "I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this."
"In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man," Castro added, a remarkable vote of confidence from the leader of a country that hasn't had diplomatic relations with the US in more than 50 years.
Castro's comments came as he and Obama were expected to meet on the sidelines of the summit in Panama City in a bid to inject fresh momentum into their efforts to restore normal relations between the US and Cuba.
Obama, speaking to a meeting of civil society groups on Friday, cast the move to end hostile relations as a triumph for the Cuban people.
"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," he told the gathering, which included Cuban dissidents. "Not because it is imposed by us, the United States, but through the talent and ingenuity and aspirations, and the conversations among Cubans from all walks of life so they can decide what the best course is for their prosperity."
Their rapprochement, first unveiled in a historic policy shift in December, is the central issue at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama.
"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.