(NSI News Source Info) April 18, 2009: Progress toward a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations gained unexpected new momentum Friday as leaders of the two countries signaled a willingness to open potentially historic talks on issues that have bitterly divided them since the early days of the Cold War.President Barack Obama delivers a speech during the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Friday April 17, 2009.
President Obama called for a "new beginning" with the island nation, capping a surge of gestures fed by a Cuban President Raul Castro's declaration Thursday that his country "could be wrong" about its adversarial approach to its powerful northern neighbor. The flurry of overtures represented the latest in the diplomatic choreography that began with the election of Obama, who has called for a new openness to Cuba, and who this week began easing rules governing contacts with the island.
But Castro, using conciliatory language of a kind rarely heard in the 50 years since the Cuban revolution, grabbed the attention of U.S. officials when he said: "We could be wrong, we admit it. We're human."Castro spoke at a meeting 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. The 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 the Obama administration was struck by the comment.
Obama, arriving in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad and Tobago, for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of the Western Hemisphere's 34 democratically elected leaders, did not say he would end the statutory U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. But he indicated an openness to change.
"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." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking earlier, addressed Castro's remarks more directly.
"We welcome this overture," she said at a news conference. "We're taking a serious look at how we intend to respond." Cuba was not invited to the summit because Castro was not democratically elected.
However, the country's inclusion in the economy and diplomatic affairs of the hemisphere emerged as a top subject of the three-day summit meeting.
In one other indication of momentum, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, said he would push for Cuba's inclusion in the organization.
In recent decades, the Cuban government has repeatedly hinted that it was ready for a thaw in U.S. relations, only to clamp down, possibly fearful that better relations with the United States would threaten its hold on power.
Cuba experts and American lawmakers cautioned that the newest signs of warming 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 longtime advocate for expanded U.S. contact with Cuba. "I've never been convinced they want us to fully lift the travel ban."