Obama reaches out at Summit of the Americas

The Associated PressApril 19, 2009 

  • In front of photographers, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave U.S. President Barack Obama a copy of "The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent," a book by Eduardo Galeano that chronicles U.S. and European economic and political interference in the region.

    When a reporter asked Obama what he thought of the book, the president replied, "I thought it was one of Chavez's books. I was going to give him one of mine." White House advisers said they didn't know whether Obama would read it.

President Barack Obama offered a spirit of cooperation to the United States' hemispheric neighbors at a summit Saturday, listening to complaints about U.S. meddling and even reaching out to Venezuela's leftist leader.

While he worked to ease friction between the U.S. and other countries, Obama cautioned leaders at the Summit of the Americas to resist a temptation to blame all their problems on the United States.

"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.

Obama said he was ready to accept Cuban President Raul Castro's proposal of talks on issues once off-limits for Cuba, including political prisoners held by the communist government.

While praising America's initial effort to thaw relations with Cuba, the leaders pushed the U.S. to go further and lift the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

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 partnership to develop alternative energy sources and fight global warming.

Renewed relations

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.

At a luncheon speech to fellow leaders, Chavez said the spirit of respect is encouraging, and he proposed that Cuba host the next summit.

"I'm not going to speak for Cuba. It's not up to me, ... [but] all of us here are friends of Cuba, and we hope the United States will be, too," Chavez said.

Later Saturday, Chavez said he is restoring Venezuela's ambassador in Washington, voicing hopes for a "new era" in relations. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close ally of Chavez, said Obama's pledge of a new era of mutual respect toward Latin America rings hollow.

"Obama said three things: There are neither senior or junior partners. He said relations should be of mutual respect, and he spoke of change," Morales said. "In Bolivia ... one doesn't feel any change. The policy of conspiracy continues."

Morales expelled U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg in September and kicked out the Drug Enforcement Administration the next month for allegedly conspiring with the political opposition to incite violence. Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador in Venezuela in solidarity. The Bush administration subsequently suspended trade preferences to Bolivia, which Bolivian business leaders say could cost 20,000 jobs.

Obama also extended a hand to Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, whom President Ronald Reagan spent years trying to oust. Ortega was voted out in 1990 elections that ended Nicaragua's civil war but was returned to power by voters in 2006.

Ortega introduced himself to Obama, U.S. officials said. But a short time later, Ortega delivered a blistering 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 3 months old," Obama said, to laughter and applause from the other leaders.

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