President Barack Obama has hailed a renewed spirit of cooperation in the Americas, one in which the United States is an equal partner that listens to its neighbors. Speaking at the conclusion of the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Mr. Obama expressed hope for democratic change in Cuba and said the U.S. economic embargo of the island has not worked.
President Obama says the Summit of the Americas yielded broad hemispheric agreement on the need to spur economic growth, confront security challenges like drug trafficking, promote alternative fuels, protect the environment, and ensure human rights. At a news conference, he acknowledged he does not agree with all fellow leaders on all issues.
"But what we showed here is that we can make progress when we are willing to break free from some of the stale debates and old ideologies that have dominated and distorted the debate in this hemisphere for far too long," said President Obama.
Mr. Obama acknowledged criticism of the United States by several leaders, like Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, but said the entire region is rooting for America's success. "Even the most vociferous critics of the United States also want to make sure that the U.S. economy is working and growing again," he said, "because there is extraordinary dependence on the United States for exports, for remittances."
The lone country in the Americas excluded from the summit, Cuba, and its long-frozen relations with the United States came to overshadow the gathering.
After a week of statements and counter-statements between Washington and Havana on possible bilateral talks, President Obama said Cuba must embrace reform. But he added that U.S. policies to force change on the island, including an economic embargo, have failed to bring about democracy.
"The policy we have had in place for 50 years has not worked the way we wanted it to," said President Obama. "The Cuban people are not free."
Numerous other leaders expressed hope for sustained dialogue between the United States and Cuba that will lead to normalized relations, while addressing human rights and political reform on the island.
"The Cuban issue comes up all the time," said Grenada Prime Minister Tillman Thomas, "and we see that President Obama has taken some positive steps. And we in Caricom [the Caribbean Community] are willing to facilitate that dialogue. Change will not happen overnight, but there ought to be dialogue. And changes are to be made on both sides."
Throughout the summit, President Obama was warmly received by fellow leaders, including several fierce critics of the United States. After several greetings and handshakes, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez described Mr. Obama as "an intelligent man" and said he wants to return an ambassador to Washington after a seven-month absence.
President Obama spoke of "huge differences" with President Chavez. He said there was no harm in dialogue with the Venezuelan leader, but actions are what matter most.
Saturday, Bolivian President Evo Morales accused the United States of involvement in a recent alleged assassination plot against him. President Obama denied the charge.
The summit host, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning, praised President Obama for a positive attitude, which he said set a congenial tone that ensured success at the gathering. "That spirit of cooperation, that new spirit that we had anticipated in the Western Hemisphere was very, very evident in the way we conducted our business," said Prime Minister Manning.
This was the first Summit of the Americas to be held in a Caribbean nation, and was notable for a virtual absence of protesters. The last hemispheric gathering, in Argentina in 2005, was marred by riots and fierce demonstrations against then-U.S. President George W. Bush.