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April 19, 2009

Obamamania at the Summit of the Americas

POLITICS - President Barack Obama was in Central America Friday at the Summit of the Americas where he offered a new beginning for United States-Cuba relations and even shook hands with Venezuela's fiery, leftist president for a quick grip and grin.

Obama shook the hand of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a leader who once likened George W. Bush to the devil. Chavez even presented Obama with a book

In an opening speech to the 34-nation gathering, the president promised a new agenda for the Americas, as well as a new style. "We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms," Obama said to loud applause. "But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations."

But perhaps the biggest applause line was his call for a fresh start in relations between Washington and Havana. Obama signaled he was ready to accept Cuban President Raul Castro's proposal of talks on issues once off-limits for Havana, including the scores of political prisoners held by the communist government. The USA has had a trade embargo against Cuba ever since the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, but Obama has signaled multiple times in the past he is ready to lift the trade embargo in an effort to see Cuba improve its human rights record and shift towards democracy/capitalism.

"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," Obama said. "I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction."

Last Tuesday, Obama ordered an easing of travel and remittance restrictions for Americans with relatives in Cuba. Within hours, Raul Castro – who took over from his ailing brother Fidel a year ago – responded with an offer of talks on "everything" that divides the two countries.

The White House has since welcomed the offer, but suggested Cuba start by releasing some of Havana's scores of political prisoners. Friday Obama promised a new hemispheric growth fund, an initiative to increase Caribbean security and a new regional partnership to develop alternative energy sources and fight global warming, and offered an end to old hemispheric arguments.

"I didn't come here to debate the past," Obama said. "I came here to deal with the future ... We must learn from history. But we can't be trapped by it."

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