PANAMA CITY – Stephen Harper shook hands Saturday with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas, sending further signals of a change of heart between the prime minister and the communist nation.
The two men exchanged a very brief greeting as they took their positions for a group leaders’ photo at the hemispheric summit in Panama.
Minutes earlier Harper made reference to Cuba in his remarks to the gathering, going off his prepared text.
“We also are pleased that all the countries of the hemisphere are represented here and also of Canada’s role in facilitating the American-Cuban dialogue that has allowed this to happen,” Harper said, in a reference to the broker role Canada played in helping the U.S. and Cuba agree to move toward normalizing relations.
It’s a different approach than the one Harper has taken with Cuba in the past.
Harper initially opposed inviting Cuba to this year’s summit because it was not a democracy and he has had strong words about the Cuban regime.
He has also been a vocal critic of communism.
Last year, Harper railed against it in a Toronto speech at a fundraiser for a controversial victims of communism memorial that will be erected in Ottawa. He called communism a “poisonous ideology” with “ruthless practices that slowly bled into countries around the world, on almost every continent.”
But since the U.S. and Cuba announced their rapprochement in December, the Harper government’s position on the communist-governed island has softened.
Canada has been encouraged by progress the Castro regime has made, says a government source, although it remains “deeply concerned” about human rights in the Caribbean country.
Canadian officials have also said Harper would likely welcome a chance for a one-on-one discussion with Castro, but as Saturday wound down it appeared a meeting would not take place at the summit.
The prime minister had never met Castro before this weekend’s gathering in Panama City.
Harper’s handshake with Castro was overshadowed by the Cuban leader’s meeting Saturday with U.S. President Barack Obama, the first formal, face-to-face talks between leaders of the two countries in more than half a century.
Obama and Castro sat side by side in a conference room in a bid to inject fresh momentum into their effort to restore diplomatic ties.
Castro told Obama he was ready discuss sensitive issues including human rights and freedom of the press, saying, “everything can be on the table.” But he also cautioned that the two countries have “agreed to disagree.”
The Cuba issue overtook a summit that it had never been invited since the gatherings first started in 1994.
Harper mentioned Cuba in his five-minute speech to the plenary session Saturday, but the address was mostly dedicated to outlining his government’s goals for the hemisphere, including the promotion of human rights, security and prosperity.
The prime minister told the room of Western Hemisphere political leaders that democracy is growing in the Americas as never before.
Harper insisted, however, that more effort is needed to build on the progress.
He also used the summit to build bridges — or mend fences — with regional leaders in one-on-one talks.
Earlier Saturday, Harper met with Obama. The two leaders had a brief conversation while they went for a walk together inside the convention centre where the summit was being held.
The leaders smiled as they passed news cameras partway through their stroll.
Ottawa has had strained relations with the U.S. over Obama’s move to veto a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Canada has also had a chillier friendship with Mexico ever since it tightened visa requirements for Mexican visitors.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office said Harper and Obama discussed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, climate change and security, among other issues.
“The president thanked Canada for joining the U.S. in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Catherine Loubier wrote in an email.
“They also discussed the situation in the Ukraine.”
Harper will also host a reception Saturday night to promote this summer’s Pan Am and Parapan Am Game, which will be held in the Toronto area.
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