PANAMA — President Obama is nearing a decision on removing Cuba’s three-decade-old designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, citing progress in his push to normalize relations with the island nation as he arrived here on Thursday night for a summit meeting of Latin American leaders.
On the eve of the gathering, where he will come face to face with the Cuban president, Raul Castro, for the first time since he announced in December that he would seek to normalize relations with the country, Mr. Obama said the State Department had completed a review that he had ordered of Cuba’s status on the list of states that sponsor terrorism.
“Our emphasis has been on the facts,” Mr. Obama said earlier on Thursday in Kingston, Jamaica, where he met with Caribbean leaders on energy and security cooperation and started a young leaders’ initiative. “We want to make sure that given that this is a powerful tool to isolate those countries that genuinely do support terrorism, that when we make those designations we’ve got strong evidence that, in fact, that’s the case.”
“As circumstances change, then that list will change as well,” he said, adding that he would not make a formal announcement until he had received a final recommendation from his advisers.
In a sign of progress in the thaw between Cuba and the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry met here on Thursday night with Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez. It was the highest level session between representatives of the two governments in more than 50 years.
Mr. Obama’s comments left open the possibility that he could announce the move at the Summit of the Americas opening here on Friday, where he hopes to highlight momentum in the diplomatic opening with Cuba. At the meeting, any interactions between Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro will be scrutinized for their symbolic significance.
Cuba is attending the summit meeting for the first time since its inception in 1994, creating the first publicly planned encounter of the American and Cuban presidents since 1958, though Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro shook hands in greeting at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa in December 2013 and President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands and chatted briefly at a United Nations meeting in 2000.
As he basked in the balmy Jamaican temperatures and the adulation of Caribbean leaders and young people visibly thrilled to welcome him, Mr. Obama cast his decision to seek normal relations with Cuba as a way of reordering relationships in the hemisphere and pushing forward on a season of outreach over antagonism.
“We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but we don’t want to be imprisoned by the past,” Mr. Obama told young leaders in a town-hall meeting at the University of the West Indies. “Engagement is a more powerful force than isolation. I believe that we can move past some of the old debates that so often define the region, and move forward.”
The president appeared energized by his Jamaican visit, which included a tour of a museum dedicated to the reggae legend Bob Marley — which he later called “one of the more fun meetings that I’ve had since I’ve been president” — and a lengthy question-and-answer session with young people to kick off a $70 million youth initiative his administration is starting in the region.
“Greetings, massive,” he told the 350 attendees, using local vernacular and getting loud cheers in return. “I just like the vibe here,” the president added. Leaders of the Caribbean countries returned the sentiment in strikingly personal terms. Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller of Jamaica, who exchanged hugs throughout the day with Mr. Obama as they cycled through official events, said he was “very loved” by Jamaicans. “You’re on the right side of history,” Ms. Simpson-Miller told the president of his effort to establish normal relations with Cuba, calling it “a bold and courageous move.”
In Panama, a fistfight broke out on Thursday between dissident groups and supporters of the Cuban government. The melee began after members of the dissident groups attempted to lay flowers at a monument to José Marti, a Cuban nationalist hero.
Mr. Obama is also likely to face other strains at the gathering here. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has vowed to use the summit meeting to rail against the United States.