The White House says U.S. President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, are expected to “see each other” on Saturday, in a historic encounter at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

The U.S. president’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters in Panama City Friday that the two leaders would meet during the summit but that no formal bilateral talks are scheduled at this time.

A senior White House official told VOA the two presidents spoke on Wednesday, before Obama left the United States for Jamaica and Panama. Jorge Leganoa, deputy director of Cuba’s state-run National Information Agency, also confirmed the leaders’ conversation.

Referring to telephone conversation on Wednesday, Rhodes said the two leaders reviewed efforts to fully restore U.S- Cuban diplomatic relations but that there are still “differences” remaining between them. Rhodes said President Obama recognizes Cuban civil society still faces harassment, but believes that a policy of engaging the Cuban government can have a positive effect.

The Obama-Castro telephone call was disclosed only early Friday.  The two presidents also spoke by telephone briefly in December, before Obama announced the shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Apart from a couple of brief, informal encounters, the leaders of the United States and Cuba have not had any significant meetings since Castro’s older brother Fidel Castro toppled U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959
revolution.

Obama arrived in the Panamanian capital Thursday night for the two-day summit, which for the first time includes communist Cuba. The summit began in 1994 and is staged every three years.

Earlier in Jamaica, Obama stopped short of announcing a U.S. government decision to take Cuba off Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

“As you know, there’s a process involved in reviewing whether or not a country should be on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. That review has been completed at the State Department. It is now forwarded to the White House,” Obama said.

But the U.S. leader said he had not yet made a decision.

“The one thing I will say is that throughout this process, our emphasis has been on the facts. So 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,” he said.

Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Foreign Relations panel, confirmed the agency has recommended removing Cuba from the list. “The United States has a unique opportunity to begin a fresh chapter with Cuba,” he said.

Normalized relations 

Obama has long signaled he is willing to remove the island nation from the list as part of the normalization in diplomatic relations between the two countries he announced late last year after a five-decade split. Three other countries are on the U.S. list, accused of repeatedly supporting global terrorism: Syria, Iran and Sudan.

This week’s U.S. overtures to Cuban leaders play against a backdrop of questions about Cuba and human rights – as well as protests.

Pro-Castro activists on Wednesday confronted Cuban dissidents outside the Cuban embassy in Panama City, shoving, kicking and insulting the dissidents who said at least some of the attackers had emerged from inside the embassy.