The 34-nation Western Hemisphere summit that closed in Trinidad and Tobago Sunday is being hailed by most participants as a new beginning for relations in the region.  President Barack Obama was praised by many for setting a new tone of openness, especially for his comments about Cuba and his handshake with Venezuela's anti-American leader, Hugo Chavez.  But Mr. Obama's goodwill gestures at the summit were criticized by some U.S. lawmakers at home. 

Low expectations

Expectations had been low for the fifth Summit of the Americas. The last meeting of hemispheric leaders in Argentina in 2005 was marked by riots and anti-American rhetoric.

But the lack of tension at this year's summit led to some surprises, including President Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shaking hands.  

Some Republican lawmakers in the United States denounced President Obama's friendliness toward the Venezuelan leader, including Senator John Ensign. 

"You have to be careful who you are seen joking around with," Ensign said. "And I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez."

Obama defends handshake

President Obama maintains that he has "great differences" with Mr. Chavez but he also defended his actions.

"It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interest of the United States," Mr. Obama said.

In fact, a video from a cell phone that emerged after the summit shows Mr. Obama looking stern and serious during his brief encounter with President Chavez.

The Venezuelan leader once called former President George W. Bush the "devil."  President Chavez last year expelled the U.S. Ambassador and Washington retaliated by kicking out Venezuela's counterpart.   At the summit, Mr. Chavez proposed sending a former foreign minister as the new ambassador. 

Analyst: Chavez seeking attention

Michael Shifter is an analyst on U.S.-Latin American relations at the the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.  He thinks Mr. Chavez was trying to attract attention at the summit by reaching out to President Obama.

"He's a politician and he understands that Obama is enormously popular throughout Latin America, in the United States today and in Venezuela. And I think it was smart politics for Chavez to associate himself to Obama, to be nice to Obama, to open up to Obama and have these kind of gracious, warm moments with Obama because he knows it plays well with his constituency," Shifter said.

Conversation shifts to Cuba

Although the global economic crisis and environmental problems were on the summit's agenda, it was Cuba that took the spotlight.

The communist nation has never been invited to a Summit of the Americas, though at this meeting many Latin American leaders urged the U.S. to lift its restrictions against Havana, including the 47-year embargo.  

The day before the summit began, Cuban President Raul Castro gave a speech saying he is willing to discuss any issue on Cuba with the U.S., including human rights, press freedom and political prisoners.  

Despite the overture, President Obama said at the summit he does not expect relations between the U.S. and Cuba to "thaw overnight." 

Gradual improvement likely

Latin American analyst Shifter agrees, saying after 50 years of mistrust by both sides, any opening will be gradual.

"I don't think the embargo is going to be lifted anytime soon," Shifter said. "I think we're going to see a cautious opening gradually with Cuba and I wouldn't have great illusions that there will be an opening of democracy in Cuba."

For now, Shifter and others say it remains to be seen how much the Obama administration will be able to build a new relations with two of Latin America's more confrontational leaders.