Obama extends hands to Chavez, Ortega at summit

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PORT-OF-SPAIN, TRINIDAD (AP) - President Barack Obama offered a spirit of cooperation to America’s hemispheric neighbors at a summit Saturday, listening to complaints about past U.S. meddling and even reaching out to Venezuela’s leftist leader.

While he worked to ease friction between the U.S. and their countries, Obama cautioned leaders at the Summit of the Americas to resist a temptation to blame all their problems on their behemoth neighbor to the north.

“I have a lot to learn and I very much look forward to listening and figuring out how we can work together more effectively,” Obama said.

Obama said he was ready to accept Cuban President Raul Castro’s proposal of talks on issues once off-limits for Cuba, including political prisoners held by the communist government.

While praising America’s initial effort to thaw relations with Havana, the leaders pushed the U.S. to go further and lift the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

To Latin American nations reeling from a sudden plunge in exports, Obama promised a new hemispheric growth fund, an initiative to increase Caribbean security and a partnership to develop alternative energy sources and fight global warming.

As the first full day of meetings began on the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago Saturday, Obama exchanged handshakes and pats on the back with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who once likened Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, to the devil.

In front of photographers, Chavez gave Obama a copy of “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” a book by Eduardo Galeano that chronicles U.S. and European economic and political interference in the region.

When a reporter asked Obama what he thought of the book, the president replied: “I thought it was one of Chavez’s books. I was going to give him one of mine.” White House advisers said they didn’t know if Obama would read it or not.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made a joke about it, noting the president doesn’t speak or read Spanish: “I think it’s in Spanish, so that might be a tad on the difficult side.”

Later, during a group photo, Obama reached behind several leaders at the summit to shake Chavez’s hand for the third time. Obama summoned a translator and the two smiled and spoke briefly.

Those two exchanges followed a brief grip-and-grin for cameras on Friday night when Obama greeted Chavez in Spanish.

“I think it was a good moment,” Chavez said about their initial encounter. “I think President Obama is an intelligent man, compared to the previous U.S. president.”

At a luncheon speech to fellow leaders, Chavez said the spirit of respect is encouraging and he proposed that Havana host the next summit.

“I’m not going to speak for Cuba. It’s not up to me … (but) all of us here are friends of Cuba, and we hope the United States will be, too,” Chavez said.

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