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.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Making his point: President Obama addresses the media during a press conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, at the end of the Summit of the Americas Sunday.

With frank exchanges and the appearance of a new maturity, regional leaders including a travel-weary but enthusiastic President Obama breathed new life into the Summit of the Americas – a meeting that at least one member thought had outlived its usefulness before this weekend.

The North and South American leaders who came together in Trinidad and Tobago failed to reach unanimity on a final declaration issued at the summit’s close Sunday. But if anything, the decision instead to end proceedings with only a “consensus” suggested – not acrimony – but a new openness to robust dialogue in regional relations.

At a Sunday press conference, Mr. Obama hailed a "very productive" event that “replaced the ideological divisions of the past with a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to act.”

His determination not to be provoked by aggressive, anti-US leaders such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela typified the esprit de corps of the meeting.

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted at the summit’s close that he was not even sure before arriving if the periodic gatherings continued to serve a purpose – this was the fifth Summit of the Americas since 1994. But he said he had changed his mind after two days of discussions that revealed a new “spirit of cooperation” despite different approaches to common challenges.

Officially, the summit focused on three issues: the regional economic crisis, common security threats, and energy development and global warming.

On the economy, the leaders agreed to urge the Inter-American Development Bank, the region’s international financing institutution, to commit additional lending capital to help struggling countries confront the economic downturn.

One reason some leaders balked at signing the summit’s declaration is that the document was negotiated last fall, before the full impact of the global economic crisis was evident. Publicly, however, some leaders, led by Mr. Chávez, held to their threat to snub any final document unless it included a condemnation of the US embargo of Cuba.

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.

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.”

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