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Obama to invest $30m to fight regional crime

In a 16-minute address punctuated by applause, United States President Barack Obama called on leaders of the Americas not to become "prisoners of past disagreements", but instead to look forward to a new beginning and to commit themselves to a new set of rules of engagement.

Anticipating that he might be in for a hard time from his Latin American counterparts, Obama said America has changed over time. But he stressed that it was important to remind his fellow leaders that it was not just the United States that has to change.

Obama was speaking at yesterday's grand, historic opening ceremony of the Fifth Summit of the Americas, which was attended by the 34 leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been highly critical of the United States. The event, at which host Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, received a standing ovation as he entered the Regency Ballroom, was held at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Port of Spain.

Chavez did not address the function. But Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega appeared to carry the fight. His address, which gave a history of Nicaraguan/US relations, focused in part on the injustices of US administrations from Ronald Reagan to George W Bush Snr. Ortega, who said he could not call this a Summit of the Americas, criticised US policy toward Cuba, saying that the country's only crime was to seek independence and sovereignty.

In what many saw as a direct response to Ortega's historical focus, Obama stated: "I didn't come here to debate the past. I came here to deal with the future."

And in looking to the future, Obama announced a new initiative to invest US$30 million to strengthen cooperation on security in the Caribbean. He also announced a new Microfinance Growth Fund for the hemisphere that can restart the lending that can power businesses and entrepreneurs "in each and every country that's represented here".

"That is not charity," Obama stressed, getting applause.

He also proposed the creation of a new Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas.

Appearing to respond to Ortega's assertion that US consumerism was partly responsible for the thriving drug trade, Obama said the US would take "aggressive action to reduce our demand for drugs and to stop the flow of guns and bulk cash south across our borders". His audience applauded his decision.

He also stated that while the United States was willing to acknowledge past errors where they have been made, the United States could not be blamed for every problem that arose in the hemisphere.

"That is part of the bargain. That's part of the change that has to take place. That's the old way and we need a new way," he said.

Obama said the US was seeking a new beginning with Cuba. This statement also elicited applause. While conceding that a longer journey had to be travelled to overcome the decades of mistrust between the two countries, he said his administration was prepared to engage 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 noted that the Summit was coming at a critical time when the well being of the peoples of the Americas was being set back by an historical economic crisis and their safety endangered by a broad range of threats.

"But this peril can be eclipsed by the promise of a new prosperity and personal security and the protection of liberty and justice for all the people of our hemisphere," Obama said.

He stressed, however, that this future could only be secured if "we move forward with a new sense of partnership".

"We have at times been disengaged and at times we sought to dictate our terms, but I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership," he said, getting applause.

"There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; simply engagement based on mutual respect, common interest and shared values," Obama added.

Obama also thanked Prime Minister Patrick Manning and the people of Trinidad and Tobago for their generosity in hosting the Summit. Obama, who grew up in Hawaii, added: "As someone who grew up on an island, I can tell you I felt right at home."

He said the "diversity, energy and dynamism of the Caribbean were part of what we share as a Hemisphere".

The event was eventually closed with a gala cultural piece which was choreographed by designer Brian MacFarlane. The world leaders present were treated to the rich cultural heritage of the country during the 45-minute presentation, which featured a cast of 750 artistes.