Historic summit ends with open window on Cuba

April 20th, 2009 - 6:16 am ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama By Veronica Sardon
Buenos Aires/Port-of-Spain, April 20 (DPA) The Summit of the Americas that ended Sunday is likely to be remembered as a turning point on ties between the US and Cuba.

While no concrete steps were taken to end the US embargo on the communist island - as Latin American nations had requested - the week of the summit delivered a dramatic change in discourse as presidents Barack Obama of the US and Raul Castro of Cuba exchanged signs of good will.

“The policy that we have had in place for 50 years has not worked the way we wanted it to,” Obama said Sunday in Port-of-Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago.

Yet he sent a message to Havana, saying that policy changes cannot be unilateral. The issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and democracy “continue to be important”, Obama said.

Cuba is the only country in North and South America that does not have a freely elected government. It was suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1962, at the behest of the US, and Cuba was the only one of the 35 countries in the Americas that was not represented in Trinidad and Tobago.

“I do not think it is possible to have another Summit of the Americas without Cuba,” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said.

OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza - arguing that Cuba should be allowed to partipate in the next Summit of the Americas in 2012 - said that he would ask for the island’s suspension from the organization to be lifted when the OAS General Assembly meets in June in Honduras.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner called the US economic blockade against Cuba an “anachronism” that should be lifted by Washington.

Ties between the US and Havana turned rocky with the triumph of the revolution led by Fidel Castro in early 1959. Castro soon turned the Caribbean island just across the Miami straits into a communist state.

Obama did not move to end the embargo in Trinidad and Tobago, but he spoke of seeking a “new beginning” in ties with Cuba and made it clear that he was prepared to go further - if Havana offers its own signs of good will.

“I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues,” he declared Friday. “I do believe that we can move US-Cuban relations in a new direction.”

Obama had made a first move on April 13 by lifting restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americas, and three days later Raul Castro said he was willing to discuss any topic with Washington including human rights, freedom of the press and the status of political prisoners.

“It is a sign of changing times, of fresh winds blowing in ways large and small,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said.

These remain minor gestures in a bitter, half-century feud in which Cuban authorities still regard the US as an evil empire, while many in Washington - and Miami’s influential, anti-Castro Cuban-Americans - regard the Havana regime as an outpost of

the failed Soviet system.

Obama made it clear that he was “not interested in talking just for the sake of talking.” He stressed a willingness to take risks to pursue what he thinks is the right path on this thorny issue.

“I don’t worry about the politics,” he said in Port-of-Spain. “I try to figure out what’s right in terms of the American interest.”

To prove the point, Obama even praised Cuban authorities, as he put forward the island’s medical programmes in poor countries as an example that the United States could do well to follow as it aims to use diplomacy and development aid “in more intelligent ways”.

He acknowledged a long way ahead to rebuild ties with Havana, and that it is unlikely to be a smooth road. But Obama has taken the first steps, and authorities in Havana have taken notice.

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