(c) 2009, The Washington Post
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago 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 Fernandez 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 Friday. "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 Friday, 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 Raul 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. Raul Castro spoke at a Thursday gathering of an "alternative" group of leftist Latin American presidents, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, 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, Raul 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."
Shifter speculated that Clinton's comments were made in reaction to a sentence reported out of context. "I would guess they were put on the defensive, because of the way the press picked it up," he said. "Then, they had to take the high road."
In Port-of-Spain on Friday, during a lighter moment amid his criticism of the United States, Nicaragua's Ortega read a letter from Raul Castro, in which the Cuban leader noted that Obama was 3 1/2 months old at the time of the Bay of Pigs. "Evidently, he had no role in this act," Ortega read from the letter.
Speaking later, Obama thanked Ortega for not blaming him for the invasion, drawing laughs from the audience. He continued in a more serious tone.
"I think it's important to recognize, given historic suspicions, that the United States' policy should not be interference in other countries, but that also means that we can't blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere. That's part of the bargain," Obama said, departing from his prepared remarks. "That's part of the change that has to take place. That's the old way, and we need a new way."
The difficulty of interpreting the long love-hate relationship between the United States and Latin America was illustrated Friday night, when the Venezuelan government released photographs of Chavez, fresh from the "alternative" summit in Havana, smiling and clasping hands with Obama on his arrival in Trinidad.
"I greeted Bush with this hand eight years ago," Chavez said, according to a news release issued in Caracas. "I want to be your friend." Chavez has threatened to "veto" the summit's final declaration, negotiated for nearly a year, because it does not mention Cuba's exclusion from the gathering.
The fifth Summit of the Americas is a gathering of the hemisphere's 34 democratically elected leaders. Obama had planned to use his first presidential visit to the region to promote cooperation on climate change, public security, the economy and reducing poverty.
"People are focused on how do we deal with the economic crisis, how do we ensure that Latin America doesn't end up in another lost decade, and how to ensure that the economic growth that comes from recovery here reaches all levels of society," said Dan Restrepo, senior director for Western hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, during the Mexico visit. "We're confident that that's going to be the principal issue of discussion at the summit."
But in addition to the Obama administration's vulnerability to criticism over an economic downturn now threatening years of record growth in Latin America, most governments in the region see the Cuba embargo that Obama inherited from eight previous presidents as a diplomatic double standard, since the administration is reaching out to Iran and promoting talks with North Korea. They see the U.S. policy as a failure, and their own rapprochement with Cuba, after severed relations at the height of the Cold War, as a sign of diplomatic maturity.
"If you want a new policy with Latin America, then you have to listen to what they say," OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said. "The world cannot change in a day, and most countries understand that. But why don't you talk to Cuba?"
DeYoung reported from Washington