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White House tempers expectations on Cuba

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Apr 19 – The White House is seeking to temper expectations of a possible rapprochement with Cuba, saying that despite all the excitement of the past few days, the ball remained firmly in the communist regime’s court.

Events this week leading up to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago included US President Barack Obama’s lifting travel and money transfer restrictions on Cuban-Americans, Cuban President Raul Castro’s new openness to talk with the United States on any issue, and a call by regional leaders for lifting the 47-year US embargo on Cuba.

The day after Castro’s overture, Obama on Friday said he was also ready to talk and that he wanted to establish "a new beginning" with Cuba, which was the only country in the Americas excluded from the two-day summit.

Obama said he was "not interested in talking for the sake of talking," but did not repeat prior demands for reciprocal gestures from Havana for having eased some Cuba sanctions.

The statement raised hopes that Obama was ready for closer relations with Cuba, after Castro said he was "open … to discussing everything" including human rights, as long as the talks are "between equals, without the slightest violation of the self-determination of the Cuban people."

His remarks were picked by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called them "a very welcome overture" and directly acknowledged for the first time that US policy toward Cuba had failed.

On Saturday, however, the White House sounded more circumspect.

Gibbs acknowledged that there had been "instances in what was said over the past 48 hours that have struck us as a change in their (Cuba’s) rhetoric."

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The shift is something that the United States hasn’t "seen in quite some time and one that certainly bears more investigation and more looking into on our side," Gibbs said.

However, asked by reporters whether the ball was still in Cuba’s court, Gibbs replied: "It has always been."

"Actions are always going to speak louder than words, regardless of how long the speeches are," he added.

"We will continue to evaluate and watch what happens, we are anxious to see what the Cuban government is willing to step up to do, and I think the president believes that significant action’s been taken," said Gibbs.

A senior White House official, meanwhile, acknowledged that many Latin American leaders at the summit who met with Obama on Saturday had urged that he lift the US embargo on Cuba.

Obama said he understood how important the issue was for them, but he reminded them that as democratically elected leaders they should also be concerned with democracy in Cuba, said the official who requested anonymity.

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