Obama signals new beginning with Cuba (Third Lead)

Port-of-Spain, April 18 (Inditop) US President Barack Obama has signalled the opening of a “new beginning with Cuba” but said it will still be a long journey despite initial steps he has already taken.

His remarks drew applause from the 33 other heads of state gathered in Trinidad Friday for the Summit of the Americas.

The issue was not officially on the summit’s agenda, but Latin America has been virtually unanimous in demanding the end of the decades-old US embargo on the communist island and the theme was expected to come up in some form – especially since Obama earlier this week announced an easing of travel and money restrictions for Cuban Americans.

Obama’s overture was among the most dramatic events since ties between Washington and Havana turned rocky with the triumph of the revolution led by Fidel Castro in early 1959. Castro turned the Caribbean island just across the Miami straits into a communist state shortly afterwards.

However, the past week appears to have made crucial changes crowned by Obama’s acknowledgement Friday that US policy regarding Cuba “has failed to advance liberty or opportunity for the Cuban people”.

By Thursday, as anticipation built towards some major US pronouncement on Cuba at the summit, even Havana got into the reconciliation act. Cuban President Raul Castro said his government was willing to discuss any topic with Washington, including human rights, freedom of the press and the status of political prisoners.

“We could be wrong, we admit it. We’re human,” Castro was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times.

Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House was “particularly struck” by “the admission by Castro that they might well have been wrong”.

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

Under pressure from the US, Cuba was suspended from the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 1962, so it is not represented in Trinidad and Tobago.

However, OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said Friday that he would move to repeal the suspension.

“My first approach is that we repeal the resolution of 1962, and I am going to ask the OAS General Assembly to do that,” Insulza said. The assembly is to meet in June in Honduras.

Cuba is the only country in North and South America that does not have a democratic government along generally-accepted lines, although authorities in Havana insist that their single-party system of popular consultations is indeed a democracy.

While Obama has not signalled he would move to end the embargo, he anticipated that recent moves are only the first approach to a tough task ahead.

“I know there is a longer journey that must be travelled to overcome decades of mistrust,” Obama said.

“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.

Obama warned that he is serious in his approach to a decades-long, thorny issue.

“Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking just for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move US-Cuban relations in a new direction,” he stressed.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the first speaker Friday at the summit in Trinidad and Tobago, reaped applause as she demanded the end of the US embargo on Cuba.

She spoke of the “anachronism that the blockade on the sister republic of Cuba means today,” and demanded that Washington lift it.

Earlier, at Clinton’s side in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez had also passed judgement on Washington’s Cuban policy.

“A policy that has not delivered results in 50 years, we have to take that as a failure,” he noted.

The recent moves of the Obama Administration appeared to indicate that this was precisely its take on the matter, although any change is bound to take time an a great deal of diplomatic brinkmanship.