U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to seek an "equal partnership" with all the nations of the Americas, including its harshest critics.
Speaking to leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean late on April 17 in the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, Port of Spain, Obama promised a new agenda for the Americas, as well as a new style.
"There's no senior partner and junior partner in our relations. There's simply engagement based on mutual respect, and common interests, and shared values," he said. "So I'm here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration."
Obama also offered Cold War foe Cuba the hope of a "new beginning."
The United States has not maintained high-level diplomatic relations with Havana since the island's revolution in 1960. Washington imposed a trade embargo in the same year, which has regularly been renewed.
But at the summit of the 34-nation Organization of American States (OAS), Obama signaled that he was ready to talk with the Cuban leadership on a range of issues.
Reaching Out To Cuba, Venezuela
"Over the past two years, I have indicated -- and I repeat today -- that I am prepared to have my administration engaged with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues -- from drugs, migration, and economic issues to human rights, free speech, and democratic reform," Obama said.
"And let me be clear: I am not interested in talking just for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction."
Cuba is not at the summit as the island was excluded from participation in the OAS in 1962.
On April 16, Cuban President Raul Castro said he was ready to talk about "everything" that divides Washington and Havana, including human rights, political prisoners, and freedom of the press.
Castro’s comments came after the United States allowed Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba and send money home more easily.
During the summit, Obama also initiated a handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, one of Washington's most virulent critics in the region.
After the opening ceremony, Chavez told reporters that he appreciated the U.S. president’s gesture.
"I could not reject such a sensitive gesture," Chavez said. "And I took advantage and said to him the same thing I said to Bush eight years ago, shaking his hand at the Summit of the Americas in Canada: 'I want to be your friend.'"
In a presummit statement, Chavez said that "there is more democracy in Cuba than in the United States."
Leaders taking part in the OAS gathering are expected to address the economic downturn and the region's energy and security needs as the summit continues today.
with agency reports