Sunday, April 19, 2009

Obama Sees ‘Positive Signs’ for Cuba, Venezuela Ties

President Barack Obama said the last week has brought “potential positive signs” for a change in the U.S. relationship with Cuba and Venezuela.

“The test for all of us is not only words, but also deeds,” Obama said at a news conference today in Trinidad and Tobago as he wrapped up his first Summit of the Americas. “I do believe the signals sent so far provide at least the opportunity for frank dialogue on a range of issues, including critical areas of democracy and human rights throughout the hemisphere.”

Obama used his first major meeting with Latin American leaders to repeat a theme he struck when he met with European officials earlier this month: The U.S. is ready to embark on a “new way” of dealing with other nations as long as they are ready to abandon anti-U.S. rhetoric and policies.

“I do not agree with everything that was said at this summit by leaders from other nations,” Obama said. “But what we showed here is that we can make progress when we are willing to break free from some of the stale debates and old ideologies that have dominated and distorted the debate.”

The U.S. president said cooperation is the only way to confront common challenges, including the global economic recession, climate change, wealth inequality and drug trafficking.

Emphasis on Cuba

The summit began and ended with heavy emphasis on Cuba. Latin American leaders are united in their disapproval of the 47-year-old U.S. economic embargo against the communist island, the only country in the region that was not part of the 34- nation gathering.

Obama said that while the embargo hasn’t forced Cuba to change its policies, the main hurdle for more changes in the U.S. stance is that “the Cuban people are not free.”

Obama set the stage by announcing on April 13 he would ease restrictions on travel and remittances by U.S. citizens with family members in Cuba. That was followed by a statement from Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother, that his government is “willing to discuss everything,” including human rights and economic policies that could ease five decades of hostilities between the two nations.

The U.S. is demanding Cuba take concrete steps to show it is serious. An end to the embargo is “way down the road,” Larry Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser said today on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.

Greater Freedom

Obama said he intended to show that while the U.S. is open to change, “it is important to send the signal that issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, democracy, that those continue to be important.”

The Cuban issue was prominent in remarks by other leaders at the summit, from both U.S. antagonists such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and allies such as Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe.

The Alba trade bloc, created by Chavez as an alternative to the U.S.-backed Free-Trade Area of the Americas, and including Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominica and Venezuela, refused to sign the final resolution of the summit today because it didn’t include language on Cuba, according to an e-mailed statement from the Venezuelan Information and Communications Ministry.

In response, the attending presidents at the Summit agreed to adopt the resolution by consensus, with only Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning signing symbolically.

Not Blaming U.S.

Obama’s stance that Cuba must demonstrate willingness to change also extends to the rest of the hemisphere. He said the U.S. shouldn’t be blamed for all problems in the region.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, 63, in his opening speech criticized U.S. policies in Latin America, making a reference to “Yankee troops” supporting anti-guerilla forces in the 1980s and saying he’s “ashamed” Cuba wasn’t invited to the summit.

In his own remarks a short time later, Obama, 47, drew laughter from the audience when he said, “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”

Obama and Ortega were seated next to each other this morning at a session of the Central American Integration System, also known by the Spanish acronym SICA, which includes the seven Central American nations as well as the Dominican Republic.

Handshakes With Chavez

The administration’s outreach effort showed signs of progress yesterday as there were at least three public handshakes over the weekend between Obama and Venezuela’s Chavez, a longtime outspoken critic of the U.S. who once called former President George W. Bush the “devil.”

One of the greetings occurred yesterday as Chavez walked over before the start of a meeting to give Obama a book, a Spanish-language copy of “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.

“You would be hard pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela,” Obama said at his news conference today.

Obama’s interactions with leaders such as Chavez and Ortega drew criticism from some Republicans back in the U.S.

“When you’re talking about the prestige of the United States and the presidency of the United States, you have to be careful who you’re seen joking around with,” Senator John Ensign of Nevada said today on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez.”

Welcome Change

Senator Amy Klobuchar defended the Democratic president, saying his stance is a welcome change from Bush, a Republican.

“All the president did was shake his hand,” the Minnesota Democrat said on the CNN program. “At least we’re talking with our enemies. It’s sure a lot better way to go than in the last eight years.”

David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, said in Washington he is “not concerned with the message” sent by the photos of Obama with Chavez.

“I’m concerned with what flows from it,” Axelrod said today on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Chavez’s pledge to send an ambassador to the U.S. is a positive step, he said.

Chavez said he’d nominate Roy Chaderton, Venezuela’s representative to the Organization of American States, to be the new ambassador to the U.S., the Venezuelan state news agency reported yesterday.