PORT OF SPAIN, Apr 20 – US President Barack Obama departed the weekend summit with Latin American leaders in Trinidad and Tobago after building up — and then knocking down — hopes of a breakthrough in US-Cuba relations.
Although Obama made the historic acknowledgement that Washington’s half-century policy towards Cuba "hasn’t worked," he said it would not be modified any time soon.
"We’re not going to change that policy overnight," he told a news conference at the end of the gathering, which brought together 34 heads of state.
"Issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech and democracy are important, and can’t simply be brushed aside," Obama said.
Those remarks doused hopes built up last week that led many to believe Washington and Havana might be on course to negotiate an end to the 47-year-old US embargo on Cuba.
Optimism awoke when Obama lifted curbs on Cuban-Americans visiting and sending money to Cuba.
It took on momentum when Cuban President Raul Castro said he was willing to talk to the United States about "everything" — including the previously off-limits topics of political prisoners, freedom of the press and human rights.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, reacting to the Americas summit Monday, urged Obama to end the US economic blockade.
"I would like to remind him of an elementary ethical principal that has to do with Cuba," Castro wrote about Obama on the website Cubadebate.
"Continued injustice or crime cannot be justified regardless of the era, in which it has occurred," Caribbean island nation’s revolutionary leader continued.
"The cruel blockade against the Cuban people costs lives and results in human suffering."
By the end of the summit, Obama and his administration were cautioning that any further US compromises would only follow concrete signs from Cuba that it was serious in engaging them.
"The test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds," Obama said.
He included in that statement his administration and that of Cuba’s chief ally Venezuela — whose President Hugo Chavez, normally a fierce US critic, made friendly overtures to him during the summit, shaking his hand and giving him a book as a gift.
The summit itself became a showcase for Obama’s near-legendary popularity. Leaders, including Chavez, jockeyed to be captured in photos with the US president.
Almost all said Obama was a genial, open counterpart who seemed genuine in wanting to open a "new era" with them based on standing toe-to-toe.
But in the end, the gathering of 34 heads of state and government — representing all the countries of the Americas, except Cuba, which was excluded under US pressure — concluded without consensus.
Several countries, including Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela, scuppered the final declaration, refusing to sign it in protest over Cuba’s absence.
Obama noted that differences remained, and said the ball was in Cuba’s court.
He suggested Havana could release political prisoners, reduce its charges on remittances to the island, or raise the living standards of its citizens in a signal it wanted a better relationship with the United States.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Obama was helping build "a new dynamic" in the region.
But a few others were more sceptical.
"He is the chief of an empire hemmed in by its own rules who will never change," Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said.
In Cuba, ordinary residents enthused over the possibility that their lives might change, though caution from past aborted attempts at conciliation remained.
"This dialogue could be the beginning of the end of the blockade (the embargo), which hurts us so much. But I know it will be difficult because of 50 years of bad ties," Yenisley Frometa, a 15-year-old computer science student in Havana, told AFP.
"Obama has done a lot. His intentions seem really good. I just hope it leads to something," added Ovidio Fernandez, an 80-year-old retiree.
The United States and other countries in the Americas are to consider the Cuba issue again June 2-3 in Honduras, when the Organization of American States will mull dropping a 1962 resolution barring the island from the group.