US President Barack Obama has 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 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 US ending 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.
The summit was to get into full swing yesterday. 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 towards Cuba on the first day 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,” Obama 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.
Several Latin American nations and delegates at the summit voiced a general agreement that the US embargo should go and Cuba be readmitted into regional bodies such as the Organization of American States, from which it was expelled under US pressure in 1962.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s closest and most voluble ally, offered an opportunity for another gesture of conciliation at the summit, briefly shaking hands with Obama late on Friday.
One official said Chavez told Obama in Spanish: “I shook hands with [former US president George W.] Bush with this hand eight years ago. I want to be your friend.”