Barack Obama, the American president, in a call to Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Thursday, April 16, told Brazil's leader that he expected some gesture of Havana in the area of human rights before going ahead in his policy of normalizing relations with Cuba.
On Friday, Obama pledged to seek a "new beginning" in ties with the Castro brothers ruled Cuba as part of a new era of US partnership and engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean. But he also pointed out he had come to speak about the future, not the past.
"We cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements," Obama told the opening session of the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port Spain, Trinidad Tobago. Obama promised US cooperation to help the region fight the effects of the global economic crisis and confront the challenges of climate change and insecurity posed by drug-trafficking and kidnapping.
But he made a point of referring to Cuba, whose government has been at ideological odds with Washington for half a century following Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba. I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day," Obama said in his address to warm applause.
"Over the past two years, I have indicated – and I repeat today – that I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues – from human rights, free speech and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues," he added.
His speech before 33 other leaders from the hemisphere came a day after Cuban President Raul Castro had said his government was ready to talk about "everything" with the United States, including political prisoners and press freedom.
Earlier this week, Obama relaxed parts of the 47-year-old US trade embargo against Cuba, and the conciliatory signals from both sides have raised hopes across the hemisphere of a historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana.
Cuba is excluded from the Trinidad meeting of 34 leaders since it was expelled from the Organization of American States in 1962, and in the past has angrily rejected any attempt to link an improvement in ties with Washington with internal reform.
Regional heads of state, from Brazil's Lula da Silva to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, have called on Obama to end the long-standing US embargo against Cuba.
In his speech, Obama promised to work with countries in the hemisphere to help the region confront the recession, stimulate economic growth and create jobs.
"We recognize that we have a special responsibility as one of the world's financial centers, to work with partners around the globe to reform a failed regulatory system – so that we can prevent the kinds of financial abuses that led to this current crisis from ever happening again," he said.
Vowing "aggressive action to reduce our demand for drugs and to stop the flow of guns and bulk cash south across our border," he announced a new initiative to invest US$ 30 million to strengthen cooperation on security in the Caribbean.
In his rambling speech to the opening session, former guerrilla leader Ortega said he was "ashamed" to be attending a summit at which Cuba was not present, and he sharply criticized the United States' history in the region.
Obama said in his address: "I think it is important to recognize, given the historic suspicions, that the United States policy should not be interference in other countries."
"But that also means that we can't blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere, that is part of the bargain; that is part of the change that has to take place. That is the old way, we need a new way," he added.
Obama's special adviser for the summit, former US diplomat Jeffrey Davidow, told the Washington Post newspaper earlier this week: "He (Obama) is going to Trinidad with the intention of listening, discussing and dealing with his colleagues as partners."
Obama is expected to try and repeat the public-relations success of his recent trip to Europe, where he charmed leaders and populations without really achieving any of his goals of getting the Europeans to spend more stimulus money and send more troops to Afghanistan.
Argentina's president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said that the Trinidad and Tobago summit "should be the first step for a new regional order" and recalled the previous summit in Argentina had signaled "an inflection point for the continent."
Delivering the first speech at the opening of the Fifth Summit of the Americas Mrs. Kirchner also spoke of the "anachronism that the blockade on the sister republic of Cuba means today" and demanded that Washington end the embargo, although recognizing the Obama administration efforts to eliminate the "absurd restrictions" imposed by former president George Bush.
She added that Cuba has expressed "total willingness to talk with the United States on all issues, which makes us believe that we are facing a second chance to build a new relation we can't let go by."
The Argentine president insisted with the 2005 Mar del Plata summit saying that then "different countries with different histories and ideas said no to FTAA (the free trade association of the Americas sponsored by Washington)" and with this attitude also "marked the beginning of a new way of thinking in our countries."
"We stood firmly on our ideas and experiences and gave a reply to what had been for decades a traumatic relation: first with the Cold War and then the East-West conflict which for us meant dictatorships and paradoxes," said Cristina Kirchner.
Among the paradoxes Ms Kirchner mentioned the expulsion of Cuba from OAS (Organization of American States) in 1962 with the argument it had adhered to Marxism-Leninism, which allegedly violated the principle of hemispheric unity consecrated in the TIAR (Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty).
"Which in 1982 did not prevent aggression on Argentina from a country not belonging to the hemisphere and no TIAR doctrine was enforced," in reference to the United Kingdom and the Falkland Islands war.
She added that now the "great challenge was integration and the non interference in our countries affairs" and ensuring "the region's economies can count with the instruments that can help with sustainability."
Mrs Kirchner also called for a quick refunding of multilateral organizations such as the Inter American Development Bank so "with different plans we can award continuity and sustainability to the expansion of our emerging economies."
Finally Cristina said that in the last four years the hemisphere economies had expanded vigorously and in Argentina in particular "the most significant growth in the last 200 years was achieved."
"This has meant social advances which today are threatened by the international financial collapse in which we had no responsibility at all. So it's essential we build a new regional order which takes into account the advances and transformations of a world which will not be the same. This means not subordination but collaboration and cooperation."
Cristina Kirchner underlined that the Washington Consensus was "a tragedy for our economies" but was quick to point out President Barack Obama "was not responsible for that system or the bipolar world."
"In the last four years the world has changed dramatically," said Mrs. Kirchner and President Obama is "clear evidence" of those changes.
"It was unthinkable that a union leader such as Lula da Silva, a member of indigenous peoples as Evo Morales in Bolivia in the nineties could have been elected presidents."
"These last four years have seen the collapse of the 2005 world, with an only way of interpreting economics, ignoring states and with the only presence of markets to rule and fix it all," concluded the Argentine president.
Let's Be Friends
Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez shared a friendly handshake at the start of the summit. The Venezuelan government called the handshake "historic" and hinted that it was the first step toward thawing chilly relations between the two nations.
"Before the start of the inaugural session of the Fifth Summit of the Americas, the president of the United States Barack Obama approached the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela Hugo Chávez and offered him a greeting," according to a statement released by the Venezuelan government.
"Both leaders gave their hands in a historic greeting, after several years of tensions with the Bush administration, when the relations between Washington and Caracas had deteriorated."
The Venezuelan state news agency released a photo of the friendly casual handshake, with Obama with his hand warmly on Chávez' shoulder.
"With this same hand, I greeted Bush eight years ago," Chávez said. "I want to be your friend."
Chávez, the government reiterated, has said "on several occasions that all he expects is for the United States to respect Venezuela and its sovereignty."