- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 18, 2009

Using the most conciliatory language between their nations in decades, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro continued what has been a weeklong thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, with Mr. Obama saying Friday that he has seen positive signals from the island nation, a day after Mr. Castro said he would be open to bilateral talks on expanding political rights.

Attending the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, Mr. Obama also exchanged a greeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has sparred frequently with the United States, and he called for a new hemispheric bargain in which other countries stop blaming the United States “for every problem that arises.”

Mr. Obama said he is prepared to alter U.S. policy on Cuba, an issue that has become a source of bitter division between the United States and its would-be Latin American allies.

“The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,” said Mr. Obama, adding that he welcomes Mr. Castro’s openness to talks and sees in the short term “critical steps we can take toward a new day.”

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The relatively warm exchange with Cuba started Monday with Mr. Obama’s move to lift the strictest parts of the U.S. travel and trade embargo, and it continued through Mr. Castro’s olive-branch remarks Thursday and the Obama administration’s various replies Friday.

“We have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything,” Mr. Castro said Thursday in Venezuela, where he was meeting with other leftist leaders from the Western Hemisphere ahead of the weekend summit.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, traveling in the Dominican Republic, said the U.S. welcomed Mr. Castro’s comments and “the overture that they represent, and we’re taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond.”

While signaling a warming of relations, the back and forth does not guarantee anything. The White House said this week it wants concrete actions by the Cuban government as a show of good faith.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with the president that the Cuban government could start now by releasing political prisoners, allowing more press freedom and “stop skimming money off the top of remittance payments as they come back to the Cuban island.”

And Mr. Obama said any talks with Cuba must have a purpose.

“Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking,” he said. “But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban #relations in a new direction.”

Cuba is not a participant in the summit, which is limited only to states considered to be functioning democracies.

Going into the summit, Mr. Obama had said he wanted to keep the focus away from Cuba and on areas where all sides could cooperate, such as sharing clean-energy technology and fighting global warming. The danger of distraction was underscored Thursday when, in a joint press conference with Mr. Obama, Mexican President Felipe Calderon was harshly critical of the Cuba policy, saying, “The embargo has been there long before we were even born, and yet things have not changed all that much in Cuba.”

Mr. Obama was so worried about losing control of the summit that he placed a call to Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva Thursday, asking the influential South American leader to help limit the summit discussions.

In his remarks at Friday night’s opening ceremony, Mr. Obama repeatedly was interrupted by applause from the other leaders each time he indicated he represented a break from the way the U.S. has conducted relations with the region in the past.

“I didn’t come here to debate the past I came here to deal with the future,” he said.

Other leaders, in their remarks, called for action to fight the global financial situation, while some had harsh words for the U.S. and capitalism.

“To continue with the current development model is to continue digging our grave,” said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, through a translator.

Leader after leader pledged help if the United States wants to engage Cuba further.

At different points yesterday Mr. Obama shook hands with Mr. Chavez, Mr. Ortega and Bolivian President Evo Morales, all of whom have been critical of the U.S. The White House said Mr. Obama initiated the greetings with Mr. Chavez and Mr. Morales while Mr. Ortega sought out Mr. Obama.

Asked later about what he said to Mr. Chavez, Mr. Obama replied he asked the Venezuelan leader “Como estas?” which is Spanish for “How are you?”

In a stark moment late in his remarks, Mr. Obama said the U.S. will acknowledge its own errors, but he warned fellow leaders that his pledges of change must be matched by their actions.

“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 said in comments that deviated dramatically from the prepared remarks released by the White House.

Mr. Obama also laid out a new bargain between the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere.

“I think it’s important to recognize, given historic suspicions, that the 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 arises in the hemisphere. That’s part of the bargain,” he said.

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