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He shook hands and exchanged short greetings with Mr. Chavez and other leftist Latin American leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

He also made a pitch for greater cooperation on clean energy, absorbed harsh criticism about past U.S. policy, particularly on the trade and travel embargo against Cuba, and he said the U.S. has made mistakes in dealing with the region in the past.

Some of the leftist leaders did not waste the chance to attack the U.S. in so high-profile a venue. Several said the U.S. has a history of meddling in their affairs.

Asked about Mr. Chavez in particular, Mr. Obama said, “His rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflammatory,” he said, and his interference with Venezuela’s neighbors has been “a source of concern.”

But Mr. Obama said engaging with Mr. Chavez was the right solution and that his overtures to Cuba and Venezuela must now be met with action from those two nations. But he said he sees signs of an opening.

“The signals sent so far present at least an opportunity for frank dialogue on a range of issues,” the president said.

He said one thing he learned from the meetings was the effect of soft diplomacy. He pointed to Cuba’s deployment of doctors to countries throughout the hemisphere as an example.

“It’s a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can over time increase our influence and have a beneficial effect when we need to try to move policies that are of concern to us forward in the region,” he said.

Mr. Obama defended his administration’s boycott of a U.N. conference on racism. The president said the conference in 2001 became a “counterproductive” Israel-bashing session.

Black members of Congress were critical of Mr. Obama’s boycott, saying it went against the same principles of outreach he has espoused.

“This decision is inconsistent with the administration’s policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with, expressed by President Obama during the G-20 and on other recent occasions,” Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat and Congressional Black Caucus chairman, said this weekend.

The Durban Review Conference will focus on racism and xenophobia, but Mr. Obama said this year’s conference appears to be adopting much of the language to which the U.S. and Israel objected in 2001.

“Our participation would have involved us putting our imprimatur on something we don’t believe,” Mr. Obama said.