- Barack Obama - Bolivia - Cuba - Latin America - USA - Venezuela
AFP - US President Barack Obama on Friday seized on an extraordinary overture from Cuba to propose talks aimed at breaking the half-decade hostility born between Washington and Havana during the Cold War.
He told a Summit of the Americas with Latin American leaders in Trinidad and Tobago that he wanted to establish "a new beginning" with Cuba that would recognize past US "errors," but require reciprocal gestures from the communist island.
The conciliatory language raised the prospect of the United States considering ending to its 47-year-old embargo on Cuba.
Several other leaders at the summit -- including those from Argentina, Nicaragua and Belize -- voiced a general consensus in Latin America that the embargo should be scrapped and Cuba readmitted into regional bodies.
"Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move US-Cuban relations in a new direction," Obama said.
"I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues -- from drugs to migration and economic issues to human rights, free speech and democratic reform."
Cuba was excluded from the summit, which brought together all the 34 other countries from the Americas.
But it was foremost in the minds of participants, after Cuban President Raul Castro on Thursday made an unprecedented offer to discuss the issues of human rights and political dissidents with the US government.
"We are open, whenever they (US officials) want, to discussing everything: human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to discuss," he said in Venezuela.
Unprecedented, too, was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assessment just before the summit on Friday that US policy towards Cuba had "failed."
The speed with which the United States and Cuba appeared to be ready to thaw their longstanding enmity was startling.
The impetus came from Obama's decision early this week to lift curbs on Cuban-Americans traveling and sending remittances to Cuba.
Left-wing Latin American presidents also voiced frustration at the fact Cuba was absent from the summit.
Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Honduras issued a joint statement Friday before heading to the summit saying they would not endorse the summit's final declaration because Cuba was excluded and the text did not mention the wide opposition to the US embargo.
In another rare display of conciliation, though, Chavez and Obama shook hands and smiled as the inauguration ceremony of the summit began. Venezuelan officials were quick to distribute photographs of the brief but genial encounter.
Obama, delivering his speech minutes later, said his goal was democracy in Cuba.
"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," he said.
"Overcoming decades of mistrust" would be difficult, he said, but "critical steps" such as his scrapping of the curb on travel for Cuban-Americans were possible.
He deviated from his prepared speech to ad lib what seemed to be a veiled message to Castro to show some concrete signs of meeting him partway.
"The United States has changed over time. It has not always been easy but it has changed," he said, calling on "my fellow leaders" to do likewise.
"The United States will be willing to acknowledge past errors, where those errors have been made," he said.
"But the American people have to get some positive reinforcement if they are to be engaged in the efforts to lift other countries out of the poverty they're experiencing."
He also said that "United States policy should not be interference in other countries, but that also means we can't blame the United States for every problem that happens in the hemisphere. That's part of the bargain."