Handshake May Signal Better Relations

Barack Obama exchanges a friendly handshake with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Photo: AP.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Hugo Chavez
By Philip Sherwell / April 18, 2009

US President Barack Obama has shaken hands with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, a bitter foe of the former Washington administration.

The surprise encounter came at the opening ceremony of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, where Mr Obama has made Cuba a key priority.

After several days of the US and Cuba trading warm words that have hinted at a détente after a half century of hostility, Mr Obama said that he was seeking “a new beginning” with Havana.

But it was his unexpected handshake and the smiles he exchanged with Mr Chavez that caught many at the summit by surprise.

Mr Chavez’s populist government in Caracas has sought to generate support by railing against Washington at every opportunity. He once described President George W Bush “the devil”.

But he was warned by his fellow Latin American leaders last week that he must tone down his anti-Americanism at the summit.

Asked what he had said to Mr Chavez, Mr Obama replied with a smile: “I said como estas”.

Mr Obama meanwhile made his diplomatic overtures to Cuba as he joined 33 other leaders of Western Hemisphere states at the summit in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago late on Friday.

Only Cuba is not represented after being thrown out of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 1962.

But Mr Obama said: “The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba. I know there is a longer journey that must be travelled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day.”

His comments came a day after Cuba’s President Raúl Castro said that the communist island state was ready to discuss “human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners – everything”. Significantly, he also acknowledged that the regime “could be wrong”.

Mr Obama announced earlier in the week that the US was easing restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans and challenged Mr Castro to make concessions of his own.

In his speech in Trinidad, Mr Obama renewed his promise for his administration to engage with the Cuban government “on a wide range of issues”, including human rights, free speech, democratic reform, drugs, immigration and the economy.

“Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking,” the president said. “But I do believe that we can move US-Cuban relations in a new direction.”

Earlier, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, also welcomed Mr Castro’s comments. “We welcome his comments, the overture they represent, and we are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond,” she said.

In another sign of changing times, the OAS Secretary-General, Jose Miguel Insulza, said he would ask the 34 member nations to invite Cuba back into the fold. Mr Insulza is known for his political caution and is thought unlikely to have floated the idea without the approval of Washington.

White House aides said Mr Obama had been particularly encouraged by Mr Castro’s concession that Cuba “could be wrong”.

However, the White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made clear that while Mr Castro’s new openness to change was welcome, the US was not abandoning its demand for Cuba to start making concrete moves toward greater freedoms.

“They’re certainly free to release political prisoners,” he said aboard Air Force One as Obama flew into Trinidad. “They’re certainly free to stop skimming money off the top of remittance payments as they come back to the Cuban island. They’re free to institute a greater freedom of the press.”

Source / Telegraph

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2 Responses to Handshake May Signal Better Relations

  1. Ron Ridenour says:

    Handshake may symbol better relations

    What the hell! Obama wants to talk to Cuba IF they release their political prisoners and adopt a “democratic” system like the US.
    And Raul Castro says “we could be wrong; we’re human beings.”

    What’s going on?

    Why didn’t Raul tell it like it is?

    It is the US that has thousands of political prisoners in cell holes around the world. The few political prisoners that Cuba has in prisons alongside all other prisoners, with rights to family visitation and cohabitation, are mainly there because the US had paid them in dollars to do their dirty work to subvert the socialist revolution and lay groundwork to re-impose US imperialism in its backyard. FUCK YOU Obama. You are nothing but a colored imperialist pig.

    And, you, Raul ought to be ashamed of yourself to fall into the imperial trap and back off. Sure, everyone makes mistakes but Cuba has never made the mistake of defying US imperialism and its attacks against Cuba. Neither yesterday, today or tomorrow is the time to start talking “concessions” with the enemy of humanity, as the Sandinistas hymn so clearly calls the devil’s reality.

    In solidarity,
    Ron Ridenour

  2. Sid says:

    The difference between candidate Obama’s comments and President Obama’s comments… not just on all of the issues surrounding the U.S. relationship to Latin America, but generally, is dismaying to put it mildly.

    Having just seen the absolutely tepid ‘don’t offend anybody’ answers coming from President Obama at the end of summit pressy regarding all things Latin American, I was tempted to think for a moment that he simply doesn’t understand the subject matter and thus the shallowness of his positions… until he actually mentioned the ‘Washington Consensus’ and the negative impact of the ‘free-market’ polices on all of Latin America… until he commented about the thousands of Cuban doctors who provide essential health services throughout Latin America… I had to conclude that he does understand but is simply unwilling or unable to bring the ‘Change’ that we and all of Latin America (in this instance) is so desperate for.

    A total disappointment, in short. Maybe I have no understanding of the strategic game he may be playing, and I certainly hope that’s the case. However, for the time being, call me totally unimpressed in his Latin American summit, process and results.

    SOOOO MUCH to do, SOOOO easy to do it (this isnt’ Pakaistan, for example!)… and yet so little done! Blah!

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