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Obama: U.S. seeks 'new beginning' with Cuba

U.S. President Obama stands between Guatemala's President Colom and Costa Rican President Arias at start of Summit of Americas in Port of Spain
President Barack Obama stands between Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, left, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias at the opening of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad on Friday.Carlos Barria / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Trading their warmest words in a half-century, the United States and Cuba built momentum toward renewed ties on Friday, with President Barack Obama declaring he "seeks a new beginning" — including direct talks — with the island's communist regime.

As leaders of the Americas gathered for a summit in this Caribbean nation, the head of the Organization of American States said he'll ask his group to invite Cuba back after 47 years.

In remarks kicking off the weekend gathering of nations — of which Cuba was the only country in the region not represented — Obama repeated the kind of remarks toward the Castro regime that marked his campaign for the presidency.

"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," he said at the Summit of the Americas opening ceremony. "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day."

Still, President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, in her remarks to the summit's inaugural session, won applause when she called on the United States to lift the "anachronism that the embargo means today," a reference to the nearly half-century-old U.S. ban on trade with Cuba..

"Let's not miss the chance," she said, to build a new relationship with Cuba.

The flurry of back-and-forth gestures began earlier this week when Obama dropped restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, challenging his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, to reciprocate. Obama noted those moves and renewed his promise for his administration to engage with the Cuban government "on a wide range of issues," including human rights, free speech, democratic reform, drugs, immigration and the economy.

"Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking," the president said. "But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction."

To that end, Obama met with Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez, a Cuban ally and fierce critic of the U.S., ahead of the summit's opening ceremonies. The Venezuelan presidency released a photograph of the pair shaking hands and described it as a friendly encounter.

'Everything' on the table
In a diplomatic exchange of the kind that normally takes months or years, Castro had responded within hours to Obama's policy changes this week. He extended Cuba's most open offer for talks since the Eisenhower administration, saying he's ready to discuss "human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners — everything." Cuban officials have historically bristled at discussing human rights or political prisoners, of whom they hold about 200.

The United States replied Friday, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offering: "We welcome his comments, the overture they represent, and we are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond."

And OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said he would ask the 34 member nations to invite Cuba back into the fold.

"We're going step by step," Insulza said. He called on the group to annul the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba because its "Marxist-Leninist" system was incompatible with OAS principles. If two-thirds of foreign ministers agree at a meeting in Honduras next month, the communist government will be reinstated.

Obama, in his remarks, rejected what he called a false choice "between sticking to inflexible policies with regard to Cuba or denying the full human rights that are owed to the Cuban people."

Obstacles to overcome
However, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made clear that while Castro's new openness to change was welcome, the U.S. wasn't abandoning its demand for Cuba to start making concrete moves toward freedom.

"They are certainly free to release political prisoners," he said aboard Air Force One as Obama flew into Trinidad. "They're certainly free to stop skimming money off the top of remittance payments. They're free to institute greater freedom of the press."

And Castro didn't retreat from his criticism of U.S. policy, recalling Thursday that the United States has long tried to topple the government that he and his brother Fidel have presided over for 50 years.

"That's the sad reality," he said.

Said Peter DeShazo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "These are very preliminary steps, but they are significant."

Bay of PigsThe U.S. severed all diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, just three months before exiles launched their disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

The last significant effort toward talks were secret negotiations between an aide to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and an emissary from the Cuban Communist Party at a crowded coffee shop at New York's La Guardia Airport on Jan. 11, 1975. Negotiators met in New York hotels and private homes over several months, but the move died when Castro sent troops into Angola.

Obama was criticized during his campaign for saying he'd meet with Castro without preconditions, and Castro said during a November interview with actor-director Sean Penn that he would meet with Obama, suggesting the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay as a venue.

Any possible talks are likely to include involvement of senior Cuban diplomat Jorge Bolanos, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. Bolanos and Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez greeted members of the Congressional Black Caucus when they visited Havana this month.

Trade embargo
Although neither side has set conditions to simply talk, Obama insists Cuba make another move before the U.S. takes more action. Castro, meanwhile, demands the U.S. trade embargo on the island be abolished, something Obama has said will not happen without Cuban moves toward democracy.

The U.S. could balk at Castro's offer to free the about 200 political prisoners held on the island, along with their relatives, and send them all to the United States in exchange for five Cubans serving long sentences on espionage charges. On the list are several people convicted of violent acts, including two Salvadorans sentenced to death for Havana hotel bombings that killed an Italian tourist. Cuba currently has a moratorium on the death penalty.

The number of political prisoners held on the island has dropped by a third since Raul Castro assumed power from his ailing elder brother in July 2006. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation then counted 316 prisoners but as of Jan. 30 documented 205 such inmates, including 12 since freed on medical parole.

Another stumbling block toward normalization is the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which forbids U.S. officials from restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba as long as either Fidel or Raul Castro is in charge.