Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that an "alternative" summit of Latin American leaders was held in Cuba. The meeting was held in Venezuela.

Obama Urges 'Equal Partnership' With Latin American Countries

Talks toward a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations seem to be a real possibility after the presidents of both countries expressed their desire to revive a relationship frozen by 50 years of cold war. Video by AP
By Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 18, 2009

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, April 17 -- President Obama was forced to confront long-standing resentment of U.S. dominance of Latin America as he told regional leaders here Friday evening that his administration seeks an "equal partnership" with the rest of the hemisphere.

"There is no senior partner or junior partner," Obama said following a pair of harshly critical speeches from the leaders of Argentina and Nicaragua at the opening ceremony of the 34-nation Summit of the Americas. "There is just engagement based on mutual respect."

Although Obama's remarks were greeted with enthusiastic applause, the message of new partnership he brought to the summit was overshadowed by opposition to U.S. policy toward Cuba, the only Latin American country not invited to the hemispheric gathering. As he sat on the stage with them, several speakers called on Obama to lift what Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called the "anachronism" of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo of the island.

"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," Obama countered in his own speech. "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day." Earlier this week, Obama lifted restrictions on travel to the island by Cuban Americans.

The administration has been careful to accompany its outreach to Cuba with demands that the government allow more political and personal freedoms before the embargo is lifted. "They're certainly free to release political prisoners," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday. "They're certainly free to stop skimming money off the top of remittance payments as they come back to the Cuban island. They're free to institute a greater freedom of the press."

But events appeared to be outpacing the administration's efforts to adjust its Cuba policy on its own terms. Earlier yesterday, the secretary general of the Organization of American States said he would ask its membership to readmit Cuba -- ejected in 1962 at U.S. urging -- when that organization meets next month. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress to lift all travel restrictions and ease the embargo.

And it was not at all clear that Cuba is ready to grasp the olive branch Obama is extending.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that a reported willingness by Cuban President Raúl Castro to discuss "everything" with the United States was a "welcome overture." Her comments followed news accounts from Cuba that quoted Castro as expressing willingness to talk with the United States about "human rights, press freedom, political prisoners, anything they want to discuss," as long as it was a conversation between "equals" that respected Cuba's sovereignty.

But Castro's comments, taken as a whole, reflected no change in policy. They were made in the context of an extended anti-U.S. diatribe reminiscent of the harshest accusations by his brother and predecessor, Fidel. Raúl Castro spoke at a Thursday gathering of an "alternative" group of leftist Latin American presidents, including Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega -- all of whom gave similar speeches denouncing the United States.

Castro recounted U.S. sins, from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to the ongoing economic "blockade." He accused the United States of supporting and funding "mercenaries" who have been tried and convicted in Cuba, and then demanding their release as "so-called dissidents and patriots." As for the Organization of American States, he said, the only reason it waited until 1962 to kick communist Cuba out was because it hoped before then to overthrow Fidel Castro and install its own "puppet government."

What Cuba wanted, Raúl Castro said, was U.S. release of five "young heroes" convicted by a Miami jury in 2001 of spying for Havana.

"My reaction was, this was nothing new," Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said of Castro's Havana speech. "This wasn't an overture at all." Even Castro's remarks about a dialogue, he said, were made "in an aggressive way."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company