Obama seeks ‘a new beginning with Cuba’ (Second lead, Changing dateline)

Port of Spain, April 18 (Inditop) US President Barack Obama Friday signalled the opening of a new chapter in relations with Cuba, saying it would still be a long journey despite initial steps he has already taken.

Speaking at the Summit of the Americas, Obama said the “United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba.”

He said the new approach was intended to connect the Caribbean island to the “American story” of democracy and tolerance.

“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,” Obama declared before his fellow leaders from the 32

democratically-ruled countries of the Organization of American States (OAS.)

Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Friday welcomed the “overture” from Cuban President Raul Castro, who said he was willing to hold talks about “everything” in relations between the two countries.

“We welcome this overture. We are taking a very serious look, and we will consider how we intend to respond,” Clinton said in the Dominican Republic.

Castro had earlier said his government is ready “to discuss everything” with the United States, including human rights issues, freedom of the press and political prisoners, days after President Barack Obama announced an easing of sanctions on the communist island.

Clinton acknowledged that US policy has failed to bring change in Cuba.

“We are continuing to look for productive ways forward because we view the present policy as having failed,” Clinton said.

At a press conference with Clinton, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez welcomed the top US diplomat’s remarks “of great value.”

“It takes courage to admit that the previous policy of the United States towards Cuba has failed,” he said. “A policy that has not delivered results in 50 years, we have to take that as a failure.”

US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the United States has taken some “very bold steps” and would like to see Havana respond by ending repressive domestic policies and allow greater freedom of speech.

“If the Cuban government’s interested in having a substantive, serious dialogue with the United States, it needs to address not just concerns of the United States and other countries, but of the Cuban people,” Wood said.

“There needs to be some reciprocation on the side of the Cuban government,” he added.

Cuba, at Washington’s behest, is not a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) and will not be attending the summit. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a populist critic of the United States, has signalled that he intends to confront the US delegation over American policy.

Fernandez, who visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro in early March, praised Obama for paving “a new road, a new hope and new relations with Cuba and with the whole of Latin America.”

Obama Monday announced he was lifting all restrictions on Cuban Americans travelling and sending money back to their home country, reversing policies tightened by former president George W. Bush.

Obama also expanded communications links and allowed more humanitarian donations to Cuba in a shift in policy geared towards bringing about democratic change to the island.

Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962 under pressure from Washington. Latin American countries have almost unanimously pressured Washington to put an end to the embargo.

Cuba is the only country in North and South America that does not have a democratic government.