PORT OF SPAIN – US President Barack Obama seized on an extraordinary overture from Cuba to propose talks aimed at breaking the half-century hostility born between Washington and Havana during the Cold War.
He told a Summit of the Americas with Latin American leaders in Trinidad and Tobago on Friday that he wanted to establish “a new beginning” with Cuba that would recognize past US “errors,” but require reciprocal gestures from the communist island.
The conciliatory language raised the prospect of the United States considering ending to its 47-year-old embargo on Cuba.
Several other leaders at the summit – including those from Argentina, Nicaragua and Belize – voiced a general consensus in Latin America that the embargo should be scrapped and Cuba readmitted into regional bodies.
In an opening speech to the 34-nation gathering, the president promised a new agenda for the Americas, as well as a new style. “We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms,” Obama said to loud applause. “But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations.”
The three-day gathering of 34 countries in the Americas – all, in fact, except Cuba – was meant to address common energy, environmental and public security challenges in a succession of plenary sessions.
But an unexpected gesture of conciliation by Obama toward Cuba on the first day, Friday, overshadowed those issues.
“I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues – from drugs to migration and economic issues to human rights, free speech and democratic reform,” the US president said.
The proposal came after a surprise overture from Cuban President Raul Castro, who on Thursday said he now stood ready to discuss “everything” with Washington – including specifically the hot-button issues of human rights, press freedom and political prisoners.
The only condition was that US officials respect Cuba’s self-determination and treat its representatives as equals.
Obama, who early this week lifted curbs on Cuba-Americans’ contacts with Cuba, said Havana still had to give some concrete signs it was willing to engage.
He stressed, though, that the United States had changed from its Cold War days, and was “willing to acknowledge past errors, where those errors have been made.” He stopped short of discussing the possibility of lifting the 47-year-old embargo. – Agencies