- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2009

PORT-OF-SPAIN, TRINIDAD (AP) - President Barack Obama wrapped up a summit with other leaders in the Western Hemisphere on Sunday the same way he began it: Pledging to reshape the image of the U.S. as an equal partner in addressing problems throughout the region.

“I look forward to hearing more about how the United States can be an effective partner,” Obama said before discussing the economic crisis, trade, security and immigration with leaders from Central American nations.

At the Summit of the Americas on the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, the president was hopeful that he’d boosted the image of the U.S. among its friends in the region _ and perhaps even made some new ones. Among those seemingly charmed by the president’s promise of a new partnership was Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, the fiery leftist who famously likened former President George W. Bush to the devil.

After several friendly encounters with Obama, Chavez approached Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about restoring normal diplomatic ties. The two countries expelled each others’ envoys last September.

“I think President Obama is an intelligent man, compared to the previous U.S. president,” Chavez told reporters during the summit of 34 nations.

Obama also was hopeful about Cuba’s offer of comprehensive talks, which followed Obama’s move to ease some travel and remittance restrictions. The White House has said it wants to see immediate action from the Cuban leadership, including increased press freedoms and the release political prisoners.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation lists 205 political prisoners on the island. Castro has offered to send them all and their families to the United States in exchange for five Cubans serving long U.S. sentences on espionage charges.

Back in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans said Sunday that they wanted to see actions, not just rhetoric, from Cuba.

“Release the prisoners and we’ll talk to you. … Put up or shut up,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“I think we’re taking the right steps, and I think the ball is now clearly in Cuba’s court,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “They need to respond and say what they’re willing to do.”

Former Central Intelligence Director Michael Hayden said he favored further engagement with Cuba, but that any thaw in U.S. relations with the communist nation should be viewed with caution. Asked how seriously he took the idea that the Cuban regime might relax its repression against its own people, Hayden said. “I wouldn’t be overconfident about it.”

“I’ve seen no relaxation of oppression,” Hayden said. “Additional contacts, exposure of the Cuban people to the American people _ all those kinds of things may actually increase the pressure on the regime to relax its oppression and to change its behavior. I think we ought to go about this step by step. We shouldn’t jump into the deep end of the pool right away.”

Hayden expressed similar caution about changes in U.S. relations with Venezuela.

“Here’s a case where I would watch for behavior, not for rhetoric, and the behavior of President Chavez over the past years has been downright horrendous _ both internationally and with regard to what he’s done internally inside Venezuela,”

Central American leaders who met with Obama said they pressed him on immigration reform. They also said that Obama promised to consider providing better advance notice when the U.S. deports dangerous criminals back to their nations.

Even Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, a critic of U.S. policy, said he found Obama receptive to dealing with the issues raised. Ortega said Obama “is the president of an empire” that has rules the president cannot change. Nevertheless, Ortega said: “I want to believe that he’s inclined, that he’s got the will.”

Ortega is among leftist presidents who are refusing to sign the summit’s final declaration because they say the Organization of American States remains a tool of U.S. policy and objects to its suspension of Cuba’s in 1962.

Hayden, Graham and McCaskill spoke on “Fox News Sunday.”

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