PORT OF SPAIN (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Friday the United States wants a “new beginning” with communist Cuba and was willing to work with its government on issues ranging from human rights to migration and the economy.
“Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction,” Obama said in prepared remarks at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
His speech before 33 other leaders from the hemisphere reflected a desire by the U.S. president to try to end more than half a century of ideological conflict between the world superpower and the communist-ruled island.
They came a day after Cuban President Raul Castro 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 U.S. 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.
“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 the prepared remarks.
“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.
Before Obama landed in Port of Spain, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called on Cuba to free political prisoners and stop imposing levies on cash remittances sent to the island by Cuban Americans.
“There are actions that the Cuban government can take beyond wanting to have any dialogue with the American government,” Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Cuba has in the past angrily rejected any attempt to link an improvement in ties with Washington with internal reform.
Cuba is excluded from the Trinidad meeting of 34 leaders but regional heads of state, from Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, have called on Obama to end the long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Obama is proposing a new cooperative partnership with Latin America and the Caribbean, free from the ideological enmities of the past, to tackle the impact of the global economic downturn hitting the hemisphere.
But the debate over U.S.-Cuba relations, and over Washington’s desire to link their improvement to a political opening in Cuba, could risk rekindling precisely the kind of ideological sensibilities that Obama wants to leave behind.
Hours before the start of the Trinidad meeting, Venezuela’s Chavez and a group of like-minded leftist leaders, including Cuba’s Raul Castro, rejected the proposed draft declaration of the Americas summit. They said the meeting offered no solutions to the economic crisis and “unjustifiably excluded Cuba”.
Speaking in the Dominican Republic before flying to Port of Spain, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the region should seize the opportunity of Obama’s presidency to improve cooperation. “Let’s put ideology aside, that is so yesterday. Let’s figure out how we’re going to help people,” she said.
“The United State wants to engage our hemisphere. This is our backyard,” she added, using a term to describe the region which has riled some of its leaders in the past.
Earlier, she welcomed what she called Raul Castro’s “overtures”.
The issue of U.S.-Cuba ties is not on the formal summit agenda or included in the draft declaration, which proposes coordination to tackle the effects of the economic crisis.
Additional reporting by Pat Markey and Guido Nejamkis in Port of Spain, Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo, Randall Palmer in Ottawa, Fabian Cambero in Cumana, Venezuela; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Kieran Murray