At summit, Obama gets friendly with Chavez
By MARK S. SMITH, Associated Press Writer – 1 hr 1 min ago
President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez before the opening session of the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Friday, April 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Mariamma Kambon, Summit of the Americas, Pool)
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad – President Barack Obama extended a hand of friendship to America's hemispheric neighbors on Saturday at a summit where he offered a new beginning for U.S.-Cuba relations and accepted a book about the exploitation of Latin America from Venezuela's fiery, anti-American leader.
At the Summit of the Americas, Obama signaled 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. Some countries at the summit pushed the United States to go further and lift the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the communist nation, which has complicated U.S. relations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
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.
"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.
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.
Later, 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."
Their exchange on the first full day of meetings at the summit followed a brief grip and grin for cameras that the two leaders had on Friday night when Obama greeted him 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."
Obama was taking part in a series of plenary sessions, group gatherings and one-on-one meetings that the White House hoped to squeeze into a busy schedule. He hoped to make time for individual sessions with leaders from Canada, Colombia, Peru, Haiti and Chile, aides reported.
Obama was noncommittal about a possible meeting with Chavez, who criticized past U.S. policy at the summit, but expressed hope that relations between the nations would change.
"I think we're making progress at the summit," was all Obama would say.
At his first meeting with South American leaders, Obama waited several minutes while security officers and members of the media pushed noisily into the room. Somebody accidentally hit a light switch, prompting Obama to ask: "Who turned off the lights, guys?" He said he hoped events would go more smoothly during the meeting where he said he would talk to the leaders about energy, security and other topics. "I have a lot to learn and I'm very much looking forward to listening," the president said.
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.
"I know there's a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day," he said.
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.
The White House welcomed the offer, but suggested actions would be better, such as releasing some of Havana's scores of political prisoners.
Added Obama: "I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction."
Associated Press Writer Vivian Sequera in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad contributed to this report. At summit, Obama gets friendly with Chavez