by Marc Burleigh – 26 mins ago
PORT OF SPAIN (AFP) – President Barack Obama Sunday quashed rising hopes of a quick thaw in US-Cuba relations, saying that while US policy had failed to change the communist island, human rights issues were too important to be "brushed aside."
The remarks, made at the end of a three-day Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, tamped speculation built over the past few days that Washington and Havana were on course to negotiate an end to the 47-year-old US embargo on Cuba.
That optimism had initially stemmed from unusually conciliatory language from Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Separately, they said they were willing to hold wide-ranging talks -- including on topics normally regarded as off-limits by Cuba such as political prisoners, freedom of the press and human rights.
Emboldened Latin American leaders who have been increasingly clamoring for an end to the US embargo added momentum by taking the side of Cuba -- which was excluded from the summit -- in speeches before Obama.
Several, including Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela, refused Sunday to sign a summit final declaration to protest Cuba's absence.
But in a news conference Sunday, Obama stated that Cuba must first show it is serious before Washington changes its stance.
"The test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds," he said.
He included in that statement his administration and that of Cuba's chief ally Venezuela -- whose President Hugo Chavez, normally a fierce US critic, made friendly overtures to Obama during the summit, shaking his hand and giving him a book as a gift.
Obama admitted that Washington's half-century-old policy towards Cuba "hasn't worked the way we want it to; the Cuban people aren't free."
But, he said, "we're not going to change that policy overnight."
"Issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech and democracy are important, and can't simply be brushed aside," Obama said.
Signals Havana could send could be releasing political prisoners, reducing its charges on remittances to the island or raising living standards, Obama said.
He described his recent decision to lift curbs on Cuban-Americans' contacts with the island as "some first steps" requiring a reciprocal gesture.
"Many want us to go further, but they at least see that we're not dug in into policies that were formulated before I was born," he said.
A few in the Cuba camp dismissed Obama's words.
"He is the chief of an empire hemmed in by its own rules who will never change," Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said.
But most leaders hailed Obama's approach, especially his vow to improve Latin American ties generally.
The US president was helping create "a new dynamic" in the region, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said.
"We all expected a clash between Chavez and Obama, but the opposite happened," he noted.
The United States and other countries in the Americas are to consider the Cuba issue again June 2-3 in Honduras, when the Organization of American States will mull dropping a 1962 resolution barring the island from membership.
Colombia, sympathetic to the United States, also offered to host the next Summit of the Americas that should take place in roughly four years' time.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking in his own news conference after the Trinidad summit, said it was too early to predict whether Cuba would participate in future regional forums.
While he would welcome Cuba's reintegration, he said Canada, like the United States, was committed to dealing with countries in the region that upheld "democratic norms."
It was up to Cuba to now respond to Obama's overture, Harper added. "We would hope that the Cuban government reciprocates."
In Cuba itself, ordinary residents enthused over the possibility that their lives might change, though caution left over from past aborted attempts at conciliation remained.
"This dialogue could be the beginning of the end of the blockade (the embargo), which hurts us so much. But I know it will be difficult because of 50 years of bad ties," Yenisley Frometa, a 15-year-old computer science student in Havana, told AFP.
"Obama has done a lot. His intentions seem really good. I just hope it leads to something," added Ovidio Fernandez, an 80-year-old retiree.