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Obama: Don't blame America

President Barack Obama offered a spirit of cooperation to America's hemispheric neighbours yesterday, listening to complaints about past US meddling and even reaching out to Venezuela's leftist leader.

While he worked to ease friction between the US and their countries, Obama cautioned leaders at the Summit of the Americas to resist a temptation to blame all their problems on their behemoth neighbour to the north.

"I have a lot to learn and I very much look forward to listening and figuring out how we can work together more effectively," Obama said.

Obama said he was ready to accept Cuban President Raul Castro's proposal of talks on issues once off-limits for Cuba, including political prisoners held by the communist government.

To Latin American nations reeling from a sudden plunge in exports, Obama promised a new hemispheric growth fund, an initiative to increase Caribbean security and a partnership to develop alternative energy sources and fight global warming.

As the first full day of meetings began on the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Obama exchanged handshakes and pats on the back with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who once likened president George W Bush to the devil.

Later, during a group photo, Obama reached behind several leaders at the summit to shake Chavez' hand for the third time. Obama summoned a translator and the two smiled and spoke briefly.

Those two exchanges followed a brief grip-and-grin for cameras on Friday night when Obama greeted Chavez in Spanish.

The White House said Chavez was civil in his criticism of the US during a summit meeting, but that there was no discussion of reinstating ambassadors who were kicked out of each other's countries last year. "Relationships depend on more than smiles and handshakes," Obama economic adviser Larry Summers told reporters later.

Bolivia President Evo Morales, a close ally of Chavez, said Obama's pledge of a new era of mutual respect toward Latin America rings hollow.

"Obama said three things: There are neither senior or junior partners. He said relations should be of mutual respect, and he spoke of change," Morales said. "In Bolivia...one doesn't feel any change. The policy of conspiracy continues."

Morales expelled US ambassador Philip Goldberg in September and kicked out the Drug Enforcement Administration the next month for allegedly conspiring with the political opposition to incite violence. Chavez expelled the US ambassador in Venezuela in solidarity. The Bush administration subsequently suspended trade preferences to Bolivia that Bolivian business leaders say could cost 20,000 jobs.

Obama also extended a hand to Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, whom President Ronald Reagan spent years trying to drive from power. Ortega was ousted in 1990 elections that ended Nicaragua's civil war, but was returned to power by voters in 2006.

See the full text of US President Barack Obama's address at the opening of the

Fifth Summit of the Americas at the Hyatt Regency in Port of Spain on Pages 15 and 22.

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