04/13/2015 07:21 EDT | Updated 06/13/2015 05:59 EDT

Harper Meets Castro, But We Had To Look To Cuba For The Photo

At first glance, it doesn't seem that earth-shaking: A poorly framed shot of two men in suits sitting before a staged backdrop, grinning somewhat awkwardly.

But the photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas over the weekend was nonetheless historic.

And not easy to come by.

Cuba's presence at the summit in Panama gave the normally overlooked event more prominence than usual, and led to several significant moments. U.S. President Barack Obama's momentous first meeting with Castro was a highly publicized event seen on media outlets around the world.

But when Harper met Castro, Canadian media weren't invited or even told the meeting was taking place.

Repeated CBC queries to the Prime Minister's Office about a photo of Harper's own one-on-one meeting with Cuba's Communist president were met first with a reference to the group photo of all the leaders and then silence.

So we went to a Cuban source instead.

"At the meeting with the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has highlighted the good relations with that northern country," reads the caption of a photo on the website Granma.cu, the "official voice" of the Communist Party of Cuba's Central Committee.

Surprise news

News of Harper's meeting with Castro arrived in a surprising way.

Rather than a statement revealing the meeting had happened, Harper himself made a passing reference to "my own meetings with Castro" in a news conference.

Journalists were confused. What meeting was this? Did the prime minister mean his handshake with Castro during that group photo?

"Oh no," said Harper. "[Foreign Affairs] Minister [Rob] Nicholson was with me and we had a good and long discussion with the president."

A gang of befuddled reporters ran over to the prime minister's communications team looking for more information about the meeting. When did it happen? Why weren't the media notified? What did the two leaders talk about?

A representative from the Prime Minister's Office said the meeting had happened shortly before the news conference, suggesting there hadn't been time to make the journalists aware.

In subsequent emails, the Prime Minister's Office refused to offer any summary of the content of the meeting, referring reporters to Harper's remarks.

Harper's office did say it was not a formal bilateral meeting between the two countries, but rather a "pull aside" format.

Yet, the staged format of the photo, with chairs and a table, suggests it was more than an impromptu conversation in the hallway.

Harper's cautious change of heart

In the past, Harper had opposed Cuba's presence at the Summit of the Americas, arguing the country did not deserve to be included because it's not a democracy.

However, Harper said he had become convinced it's time for a new approach to the world's relationship with Cuba.

"We're at a point where engagement is more likely to lead us to where we want to go than continued isolation," Harper told reporters at his summit news conference Saturday.

"In my own meetings with President Castro, we obviously underlined the fact that we have an important and long-standing relationship. It's a political relationship, a tourist relationship and commercial relationship to some degree — one that we want to expand," Harper said.

"At the same time, we are not by any means unconcerned by the lack of democratic space and human rights concerns in Cuba. We've always been clear on that and will continue to do so."

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