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Chummy Obama, Chávez mark 'spirit of cooperation' at summit

Despite worries that the agenda would be hijacked by a debate about America's Cuba policy, the Summit of the Americas finished with a feeling of goodwill.

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Cuba was a focus of the leaders’ discussions to a degree it never was at earlier summits. But it did not derail deliberations in a way some had predicted. As a Communist country without a democratically elected leadership, Cuba is the only nation of the Americas not invited to the summits.

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The leaders agreed the Organization of American States should take up the question of Cuba’s return to the regional body at its June meeting in Honduras. But the lack of fireworks over the Cuban issue reflected recognition of the promise of a new direction in US-Cuba relations under Obama. The summit followed new measures announced by the Obama administration last week loosening some restrictions on US contacts with Cuba.

In response, Havana let be known it was ready for dialogue on all issues between the two estranged countries. But disagreements remain over who should act next, suggesting progress will be slow.

Beyond Cuba, the absence of hostilities stemmed from the relationship between Obama and Chávez, who had made a point of antagonizing President Bush at the last Summit of the Americas in Argentina in 2005. Obama crossed a room at an opening gathering Friday night to greet Chávez. In response, Chávez told Obama in Spanish, “I want to be your friend.” He later presented the US leader with a book – a tome chronicling 500 years of European and American exploitation of Latin America.

Obama refused to interpret the gift as baiting, quipping later: “It was a nice gesture to give me a book, I’m a reader.”

That determination to bury old antagonisms was also present when Obama responded disarmingly to an hour-long opening speech by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, in which the former leftist revolutionary reviewed US action against Cuba including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. “I’m grateful President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old,” he told chuckling leaders.

The president’s openness to exchange with the likes of Chávez was already being condemned by some in Washington before he left Trinidad’s soil. But Obama said it is his view that America’s interests are served when it opens doors even to its adversaries.

“I did not see eye to eye with every leader on every regional issue at this summit,” he said before departing here [but] “we showed that while we have our differences we can talk together.”