Stephen Harper talks with Raul Castro at Summit of the Americas
PM also trades views with Obama on climate change, trade, other issues
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he met with Cuba's president at the Summit of the Americas.
Harper told reporters he had a long and detailed discussion with Raul Castro late Saturday afternoon at the summit in Panama City, adding he thinks the time has come for a different approach to relations with the communist regime.
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"We also are pleased that all the countries of the hemisphere are represented here and also of Canada's role of facilitating the American-Cuban dialogue that has allowed this to happen," Harper said earlier in the day, a reference to the broker role Canada played in helping the United States and Cuba agree to move toward normalizing relations.
It's a significantly different approach than the one Harper has taken with Cuba. Initially he opposed inviting Cuba to the summit.
Since then officials in the Prime Minister's Office have said Canada is encouraged by progress the Cuban government has made in areas such as human rights, although Harper remains concerned about this area.
Harper's handshake and discussion with Castro was overshadowed by the Cuban leader's meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday, the first formal meeting between leaders of the two countries in more than half a century.
Harper's comments to the plenary session on Saturday also included an outline of his government's goals for the hemisphere, including the promotion of human rights, security and prosperity.
Harper wants more democracy
Harper said democracy is growing in the Americas as never before, but greater effort is needed to build on the progress.
"This includes: free, fair and regular elections, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly," Harper said. "It also means strong, autonomous institutions, including the judiciary, political parties, and independent media."
Earlier Saturday, Harper held a one-on-one discussion 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 conversation appeared light as the smiling leaders briefly passed news cameras.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office said the pair discussed climate change and trade among other issues.
Cuba's participation in the summit is far from the only change over the last three years.
Ottawa has strained relations with the U.S. over Obama's move to veto a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. It also has a chillier friendship with Mexico ever since it tightened visa requirements for Mexican visitors.
Harper will also host a reception to promote this summer's Pan Am and Parapan Am Games that will be held in the Toronto area.
On Friday evening, Harper had brief discussions with several leaders, including Mexican President Pena Nieto, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a spokeswoman said. He also met Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, an observer.