(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- The U.S. and Cuba built sudden momentum Friday toward easing a half-century of hostility as President Barack Obama met Havana's willingness to discuss sensitive topics including human rights with a declaration that he is ready for a "new beginning" in relations.
One official admitted the Obama administration was caught off guard by Cuban leader Raul Castro's willingness to discuss issues long considered off limits by the communist leadership. Obama wants Cuba to make the next move, possibly by releasing political prisoners or removing restrictions on the media, the official said.
Cuba's willingness to talk does not mean that it is willing to change policies. But the rhetorical exchange was the most hopeful sign in years of a thawing in relations between the two countries. The possibility of change was emphasized by a friendly greeting between Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a longtime U.S. critic and staunch supporter of Cuba.
Obama and Chavez were among the leaders attending the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, a gathering of 34 democratically elected leaders from the Western Hemisphere. The two leaders shook hands and smiled broadly at each other.
The flurry of overtures represented the latest in the diplomatic choreography that began with the election of Obama. The U.S. president has called for a new openness to Cuba, and began easing restrictions on contacts with the island.
Castro responded at a meeting Thursday of leftist leaders in Venezuela.
"We are willing to discuss everything -- human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about," Castro said. "We could be wrong; we admit it. We're human."
Obama, in opening remarks at the summit, spoke of the relationship between the two countries.
"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," Obama said. "Over the past two years, I have indicated -- and I repeat today -- that 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."
Analysts and lawmakers who favor expanded contact with Cuba cautioned that at least three attempts in the last 35 years to relax tensions collapsed in acrimony.
But Castro's explicit offer to discuss issues such as political prisoners and human rights with U.S. officials was apparently a first for a top Cuban official, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama administration officials were "particularly struck" by that concession.
Arriving at the Summit of the Americas, Obama approached Chavez as leaders waited in line to enter a reception. The two spoke about changing the relationship of their countries, according to Chavez's office in a statement that a senior Obama administration official did not dispute.
During his opening remarks, Obama did not say he would seek to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba. But he indicated an openness to shift U.S. policies, pointing to his decision earlier this week to ease travel and financial restrictions on Cuban Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking earlier, addressed Castro's remarks even more directly.
"We welcome this overture," she said at a news conference. "We're taking a serious look at how we intend to respond."
The comments point at least to the likelihood of new talks. But the two countries remain stalemated on major issues: Cuba wants the U.S. to lift the embargo and remove travel restrictions, but the Obama administration wants Cuba to first free political prisoners, improve human rights and adopt economic reforms before taking more drastic steps.
Nonetheless, experts said that even in the absence of progress on major issues, U.S. and Cuban officials could take first steps in other areas, such as population migration or counternarcotics efforts.
Cuba was not invited to the Summit of the Americas because Castro was not democratically elected.
However, the country's inclusion in the economic and diplomatic affairs of the hemisphere emerged as a top subject of the three-day summit. Many leaders called for a repeal of the U.S. embargo and greater inclusion of Cuba.
"I don't feel comfortable attending this summit," said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a onetime rebel leader. "I feel ashamed of the fact that I'm participating in the summit with the absence of Cuba."
The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, said he would push for Cuba's inclusion in the organization.
The Cuban government has repeatedly hinted that it is ready for a thaw in relations with the U.S., only to clamp down, possibly fearful that improved U.S. relations would threaten its hold on power.
Cuba experts and lawmakers cautioned that the latest warming signs could be short-lived as well.
"I think they get spooked whenever we get closer, and they want to push it back," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a long-time advocate for expanded U.S. contact with Cuba. "I've never been convinced they want us to fully lift the travel ban."
Nonetheless, experts were astonished at Castro's comments.
Castro's willingness to discuss human rights issues and political prisoners represented a major break, experts said.
"That's the news," said Daniel P. Erikson, a long-time Cuba watcher at the Inter American Dialogue, a think tank. "That's been such a deal breaker."
Michael Landweber, a former State Department official now at the Partnership for a Secure America, said the Cuba opening posed a "great opportunity to test Obama's strategy of sitting down to talk" with longtime foes.
Obama had planned to use the summit to assert his commitment to re-engage with Latin America and emphasize his intent to listen to other leaders.
Recognizing a sore point among Latin Americans, Obama said the U.S. no longer wanted to interfere in the affairs of other countries. But at the same time, he asked that other countries not reflexively demonize the U.S.
"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 we can't blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere," he said. "That's part of the bargain. That's part of the change that has to take place."
^Richter reported from Washington, and Nicholas from Port of Spain