PORT OF SPAIN (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Sunday he saw “potential positive signs” of better relations with Cuba and Venezuela, but he called on Cuba to back them up by giving its people more political freedom.
Obama spoke after attending a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago that he said focused on “launching a new era of partnership” between western hemisphere countries.
Communist-ruled Cuba was excluded from the meeting, but the summit was dominated by speculation over the prospect of an end to the long conflict between Washington and Havana after Cuban President Raul Castro said last week he was open to talks.
Obama also received friendly overtures during the summit from left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose close alliance with Cuba and fierce criticism of U.S. policies in the region had strained relations with Washington.
“For the past few days, we’ve seen potential positive signs in the nature of the relationship between the United States, Cuba and Venezuela,” Obama told a news conference.
“We’re going to explore and see if we can make progress,” Obama added, recalling that Raul Castro had said he was willing to talk about political prisoners and human rights.
Obama added: “But as I’ve said before, the test for all of us is not simply words but deeds”.
Referring to his move last week to ease parts of the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, he said the policy “in place for 50 years hasn’t worked the way we want it to”.
”The Cuban people are not free and that’s our lodestone, our North Star, when it comes to our policy on Cuba, he said.
He reiterated a call for Havana to reciprocate by freeing political prisoners and addressing freedom of expression and religion. These issues should not be “brushed aside”, he said.
“There are ways that Cuba can send signs that they are serious about real change,” Obama added.
In the past, Havana has rejected placing such conditions on an improvement in ties as meddling in its sovereignty.
Obama’s meetings and contacts during the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain mended broken diplomatic fences in a region where America-bashing has long been accepted and where former President George W. Bush generally was unpopular.
“What we showed here is that we can make progress when we’re willing to break free from some of the stale debates and old ideologies that have dominated and distorted the debate in this hemisphere for far too long,” Obama said.
“PLUNGE INTO LATIN AMERICA”
Although Obama had to field a chorus of calls to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, his cooperative diplomatic style went down well with his Latin American and Caribbean peers.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the summit had created a chance for a new era in relations between the United States and Latin America.
“Obama took a plunge into Latin America ... We created a new way of viewing each other and of overcoming our differences by debating them,” Lula told reporters.
Venezuela’s Chavez, who told Obama “I want to be your friend”, also indicated his willingness to cooperate with the new U.S. administration in improving ties. “We have the political will to work together,” Chavez told reporters.’
Obama rejected suggestions that contact with die-hard critics of Washington like Venezuela, which is an OPEC member and major supplier of oil to the United States, was a sign of weakness.
“It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States,” he said.
A draft summit declaration, which stated a commitment to work together to tackle the hemisphere’s economic, energy and security challenges, was issued at the end of the meeting.
But there was no formal joint signing ceremony as a group of mostly leftist presidents led by Chavez had previously rejected the document.
The group, including Bolivia, Nicaragua and Honduras, said it did not address Cuba’s exclusion from the summit or provide solutions to the economic crisis threatening the region.
The summit’s host, Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad, said the declaration was adopted by consensus even though some refused to endorse it, and Latin American and Caribbean leaders hailed the summit as a success.
In contrast to a previous summit in Argentina in 2005, which ended in discord, the Port of Spain meeting hummed with goodwill.
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Patrick Markey, Guido Nejamkis, Ana Isabel Martinez and Linda Hutchinson-Jafar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Paul Simao