PORT OF SPAIN (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama won praise for offering a closer friendship with Latin American and Caribbean leaders at a regional summit on Saturday but they also urged him to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Obama, attending his first Summit of the Americas, has promised an era of better cooperation with the hemisphere and offered a new start to relations with communist-ruled Cuba.
He won early approval in a warm encounter with left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, usually a fierce critic of the United States and its policies.
Brazil joined Venezuela and Caribbean nations in applauding Obama but the friendly atmosphere was tempered by repeated calls that Washington do more to end its ideological conflict with Cuba, which has marked the hemisphere for half a century.
“Relations with Cuba will be an important sign of the willingness of the United States to relate to the region,” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said at the summit meeting in Port of Spain.
“There is no place in our continent for policies of isolation,” Lula added, referring to the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
Venezuela’s Chavez suggested Cuba, the only country excluded from the regional summit, could host the next one.
Obama told 33 other leaders from across the Americas at the summit on Friday that he wanted a new beginning with Cuba and was open to discuss with Havana issues ranging from human rights to the economy.
But he also wants political reforms from Havana in return, a condition that has blocked rapprochement in the past.
At a closed-door meeting with South American leaders, Obama urged the hemisphere to focus on democracy in Cuba.
“The president responded that he understands the importance of Cuba for Latin America,” a senior U.S. official told reporters. “He said everything we do in relation with Cuba is informed by a real concern for democracy.”
The meeting, the first Summit of the Americas to be held in the English-speaking Caribbean, is looking at ways to counter the global economic crisis, develop energy resources and tackle the dangers of climate change and arms- and drugs-trafficking.
Discussions focused on the impact of the global crisis that has halted growth and threatened to send millions back into poverty in underdeveloped states of the region.
Obama announced the creation of a $100 million microfinance growth fund to help small lenders in the Western Hemisphere continue making loans despite the global recession.
But the meeting has been dominated by debate over U.S.-Cuban ties after both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro indicated they were ready to talk to try to end the decades of hostility between their two countries.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. government was evaluating Raul Castro’s statements this week.
“We think that was a change in their rhetoric that we haven’t seen in quite some time and one that certainly bears more investigation,” Gibbs said.
Obama earlier this week he eased parts of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, but most of the Latin American and Caribbean leaders gathered here want it scrapped completely.
Brazil’s Lula welcomed Obama’s moves to relax the sanctions but described them as “insufficient.” “It’s important they be amplified, but without conditions,” he said.
The warm reception for Obama contrasted with the Summit of the Americas four years ago in Argentina, where leftists like Chavez attacked the “imperialist” policies of former President George W. Bush.
“I think we’re making progress at the summit,” Obama told reporters.
At the official photograph, Obama chatted and smiled with Chavez and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, another leftist who has pilloried U.S.-backed free market policies.
Chavez, a standard-bearer for anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, shook hands with Obama late on Friday in a signal of improved relations between his OPEC nation and its largest oil client, the United States.
Chavez expelled the U.S. envoy to Caracas last year in a dispute over ally Bolivia but he said he had “no doubt” ties with Washington would improve with Obama in the White House.
Addressing Obama directly during the plenary session, he told him, in English: “I want to be your friend.” The greeting drew applause from the other leaders.
Earlier, Chavez presented the U.S. president with a book, “The Open Veins of Latin America,” by left-wing Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Obama accepted the gift with a smile.
“I thought it was one of Chavez’s books,” the U.S. leader joked later. “I was going to give him one of mine.”
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Guido Nejamkis and Linda Hutchinson-Jafar in Port of Spain; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Kieran Murray