Friday, April 17, 2009

More Positive Indicators from the Summit

OAS, US warm up to Cuba after Raul Castro overture

By VIVIAN SEQUERA – 35 minutes ago

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) — The head of the Organization of American States said Friday that he will ask its members to readmit Cuba 47 years after they ousted the communist nation. And in another step toward improving relations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Cuban President Raul Castro's latest comments a "very welcome gesture."

After a series of overtures by U.S. President Barack Obama, Castro said Thursday that he is ready to talk with the U.S. and put "everything" on the table, even questions of human rights and political prisoners.

That prompted a warm response from Clinton: "We welcome his comments, the overture they represent and we are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond."

As leaders of 34 nations converged on Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas — an OAS-sponsored gathering that includes every nation in the region but communist Cuba — expectations were soaring for a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations that have been largely frozen since the Cold War.

Things seemed to be moving quickly. Obama and Clinton had earlier said that Havana needs to reciprocate after Obama's "good faith" gesture of removing restrictions on some American money and travel to Cuba. But Raul Castro's conciliatory response seemed to be enough to move things forward even without a more concrete move on U.S. sticking points.

"We're going step by step," OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said, explaining that he will ask the group's general assembly in May to annul the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba.

Other leaders arriving in Trinidad also offered to help. Jamaica's prime minister, Bruce Golding, said the 15-member Caribbean Community is willing to mediate any Cuba-U.S. talks on easing tensions and lifting the decades-old American trade embargo against Cuba.

Golding told The Associated Press that Caricom leaders also agreed to not push Obama too hard on the issue during the summit.

"I'm hoping that nothing is done that will make the process more difficult and that we seek to encourage further progress rather than cause the situation once again to become polarized and intractable," he said.

Washington provides more than 70 percent of the OAS budget, which affords it certain privileges. And for 47 years, the Washington-based organization has officially considered Cuba's communist system to be incompatible with its principles.

But there is a growing clamor in the region to end efforts to isolate Cuba, not just from Raul and Fidel Castro's close friends, but also from conservative U.S. allies like Mexico.

Raul Castro spoke Thursday at a meeting of leftist leaders in Venezuela who vowed to represent Cuba's interests in Trinidad. Vehemently defending his government's resistance to the U.S., he said "the OAS should disappear" and that Cuba would never want to join the organization he called a tool of the U.S.

"The North Sea will unite with the South Seas, a serpent will be born from an eagle's egg before Cuba joins the OAS," Castro said.

Inzulza said Castro's feelings are only natural: "If my country were suspended from an organization for nearly 50 years I'd be very upset."

Castro's other comments about negotiating with the U.S. represented the most conciliatory language that either Castro brother has used with any U.S. administration since that of Dwight D. Eisenhower in early 1961, when the nations broke off relations.

Raul Castro has previously said he would be willing to discuss all issues with Obama. But Cuban officials have historically bristled at including human rights or political prisoners in the talks, saying such matters are none of the Yankees' business.

Now, he even suggested that "many other things" could be up for discussion. "We could be wrong, we admit it. We're human beings," Castro said. "We're willing to sit down to talk as it should be done, whenever."

Castro said his only conditions are that Washington treat his government as an equal, and respect "the Cuban people's right to self-determination."

Most Cubans, however, likely heard little about these overtures, unless they watched TV using illegal satellite hookups.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma on Friday did not carry Castro's comments about the U.S., focusing instead on his talks on regional matters with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other Latin American leaders. Granma also ignored Obama's statements about Cuba, and dealt instead with Mexican President Felipe Calderon's call to drop the embargo.

And Fidel Castro, who still pens enormously influential columns from the sidelines of power, was silent on Friday.

Obama said a relationship frozen for 50 years "won't thaw overnight." But their words seemed as historic as any that leaders of the two nations have made to one another.

Relations warmed briefly during Jimmy Carter's administration, adding direct flights between Miami and Havana and opening interests sections in lieu of embassies in each country. But that honeymoon soon ended with a refugee crisis when 125,000 Cubans fled to the United States from the Mariel port west of Havana in 1980.

Warming relations under Bill Clinton were put in the freezer after Cuban fighter jets shot down two civilian planes off the island's coast in 1996, killing the four exiles aboard.

Obama said he acted in good faith to lift restrictions on visits and money sent by Americans with families on the island — steps he called "extraordinarily significant" for the families. But he ruled out a unilateral end to the embargo, even as Clinton said Friday that "we vew the present policy as having failed."

No one should expect a sudden, major breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations, but these latest developments should not be lightly dismissed, said Peter DeShazo, a Latin America expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. diplomat.

"These are very preliminary steps," he said in a telephone interview in Washington. "But they are significant" not only as symbolic gestures of good will but also as building blocks of a foundation for a new relationship.

Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker in Cumana, Venezuela, Frank Bajak and Bert Wilkinson in Trinidad; and Anita Snow in Havana and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.