Obama Seeks 'New Beginning' With Cuba

At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday, President Obama said the U.S. is seeking a "new beginning" with Cuba and promised to work with governments throughout the region on an "equal partnership."

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Moving on, President Obama says the United States is seeking a new beginning with Cuba after 50 years. The comment was welcomed by many leaders attending the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad this weekend. Mr. Obama promised to work with governments throughout the region on what he called an equal partnership. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Cuba's flag is not among the 34 banners waving outside the waterfront hotel here in Trinidad, where leaders from throughout the Americas have gathered. But while the communist country might be out of sight, it's not out of mind. Several leaders who spoke at the opening ceremonies last night called on the U.S. to end its 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. And while President Obama did not go that far, he did say he believes he can move relations with Cuba in a new direction.

President BARACK OBAMA: I know there's a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day.

HORSLEY: Earlier this week, Mr. Obama eased travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans, making it easier to visit relatives or send money home. He later said he was looking to Cuba's government to make the next move, and Cuban President Raul Castro may have done so when he said he's willing to hold talks with the U.S. on a wide variety of subjects, including political prisoners and human rights. Mr. Obama responded yesterday that he's not interested in talking for the sake of talking, but his administration is willing to engage with Cuba in a new way.

Pres. OBAMA: The United States has changed over time. It has not always been easy, but it has changed.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: And so I think it's important to remind my fellow leaders that it's not just the United States that has to change. All of us have responsibilities to look towards the future.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: U.S.-Cuban relations are not even on the formal agenda of the meeting. And former ambassador, Jeffrey Davidow, who's advising the White House, does not expect the issue to completely sidetrack official discussions of the economy, energy and the environment. Nevertheless, Davidow says the issue may add some drama to the summit over the next couple of days.

Mr. JEFFREY DAVIDOW (Former Ambassador, White House Advisor): The question of how some of the more, shall we say, flamboyant actors in Latin American will flamboy.

HORSLEY: President Obama shared a handshake last night with one of those flamboyant critics: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez is threatening not to sign the final summit declaration, which was months in the making. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said through an interpreter he wouldn't even refer to the meeting as a Summit of the Americas in protest of Cuba's absence.

President DANIEL ORTEGA (Nicaragua): (Through translator) Cuba, whose crime has been that of fighting for independence, fighting for sovereignty, just because of that, they're excluded.

HORSLEY: But other hemispheric leaders are genuinely excited about meeting with the new U.S. president and see this as a new beginning. Mr. Obama tried to encourage that view in his opening speech last night.

Pres. OBAMA: I know the promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and the trust has to be earned over time. While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we've at times been disengaged and at times we've sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership.

HORSLEY: Even if that sometimes means sitting through a scolding from those who disagree with policies like the Cuban trade embargo.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Trinidad.

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