President Barack Obama offered a spirit of cooperation to America's hemispheric neighbors at a summit Saturday, listening to their complaints about past U.S. interference in the region and even reaching out to Venezuela's fiery leftist leader.
While he worked to ease friction between the U.S. and leaders at the Summit of the Americas, Obama cautioned them 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 the scores of 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 the communist nation.
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 new regional 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, Obama exchanged handshakes and pats on the back with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who once likened 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, which 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' 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.
Later, during a group photo, Obama reached behind several leaders at the summit to shake Chavez' hand for the third time. Obama summoned a translator and the two smiled and spoke briefly.
Those 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."
The White House said Chavez was civil in his criticism of the U.S. during a summit meeting, but that there was no discussion of reinstating ambassadors who were kicked out of each other's countries last year.
Despite Obama's pledge of a new era of mutual respect toward Latin America, Bolivia's President Evo Morales, another leftist leader in South America, said Washington continues to conspire against him. Morales told reporters that in the nearly 100 days since Obama took office, he has seen no change in U.S. hostility to his nation. Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and drug agents last year, accusing them of conspiring with the opposition to incite violence.
In an opening speech to the 34-nation gathering on Friday, 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."
He also extended a hand to a leader Ronald Reagan spent years trying to drive from power: Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. The Sandinista president stepped up and introduced himself, U.S. officials reported. Yet soon after, Ortega, who was ousted in 1990 elections that ended Nicaragua's civil war but who was returned to power by voters in 2006, delivered a blistering 50-minute speech that denounced capitalism and U.S. imperialism as the root of much hemispheric mischief. The address even recalled the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, though Ortega said the new U.S. president could not be held to account for that.
"I'm grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old," Obama said, to laughter and applause from the other leaders.
But perhaps the biggest applause line was his call for a fresh start in relations between Washington and Havana.
Earlier this week, Obama ordered an easing of travel and remittance restrictions for Americans with relatives in Cuba. Within hours, Castro - who took over from his ailing brother Fidel a year ago - responded with an offer of talks on "everything" that divides the two countries.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)