PORT OF SPAIN - Leaders from across the Americas gathered on Friday for a summit overshadowed by an intense debate over a possible reconciliation between the United States and Cuba and how this could be achieved.

President Barack Obama, making his first diplomatic foray as U.S. leader in Latin America and the Caribbean, has extended a hand to communist-ruled Cuba, saying he wants to recast the hostile relationship between Washington and Havana. But he wants Cuba to help by opening up more political freedoms.

Raising hopes of possible future rapprochement, Cuban President Raul Castro said in Venezuela on Thursday his country was open for talks with the United States about everything. But he demanded respect for Cuba's sovereignty.

The prospect of a thaw in an ideological conflict that has marked the hemisphere for half a century is already dominating the Summit of the Americas starting later on Friday in Port of Spain, in the Caribbean state of Trinidad and Tobago. Cuba is excluded from the meeting of 34 regional leaders.

The issue of U.S.-Cuba ties is not on the formal summit agenda or included in the draft declaration, which proposes broad coordination to tackle the effects of the global economic crisis that is hitting countries across the region, from the United States and Brazil to the smallest Caribbean state.

In his statement on Thursday, Castro said his country was ready to discuss with the United States human rights, press freedom, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about.

Visiting the Dominican Republic on Friday before flying on to Port of Spain, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed what she called Castro's overtures.

We are taking a very serious look at it and we will consider how we intend to respond, she told reporters.

Earlier this week, Obama opened a crack in the embargo by scrapping restrictions on family travel to Cuba and letting U.S. firms bid for telecommunications licenses. Clinton described these moves as the most significant policy changes by the United States government toward Cuba in decades.


Prior to Obama's arrival in Port of Spain, U.S. officials were struggling to prevent the debate over U.S.-Cuba relations from becoming the centerpiece of the summit, at the expense of proposed strategies to confront the economic downturn.

People are focused on how do we deal with the economic crisis, how do we ensure that Latin America doesn't end up in another lost decade ... we're confident that that's going to be the principal issue of discussion at the summit, Obama's special assistant for Latin America, Dan Restrepo, told reporters in Mexico, which Obama visited on Thursday.

Adding to the distractions, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an outspoken ally of Cuba, has said he will not sign the final summit declaration because it does not reflect the calls for Washington to change its policy on Cuba.

At this summit, I think there's going to be a lot of unnecessary distractions. We're already seeing that with President Chavez, we're seeing it with the Cuba issue. That's just a reality of the hemisphere, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in an interview published on Friday.

But Harper, who will attend the Port of Spain summit, told the Canwest news service he was encouraged that the United States was seeking to review its Cuba strategy, because I think the current strategy has not worked.

Obama has made clear he expects Cuba to reciprocate the U.S. moves by for example freeing political prisoners. Cuba is said to have about 200 political prisoners, whom it considers mercenaries for the United States.

In the past, Cuba's leadership has rejected such linked conditionality for an improvement in ties, and several Latin American and Caribbean states support Havana in this position.

We must work with that process (of improving U.S.-Cuban relations) rather than attempting to take the position of trying to get a pound of flesh, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding told reporters in Port of Spain.

Cuba, whose 1959 nationalist revolution led by Fidel Castro led to the introduction of a one-party communist state, was suspended from the Organization of American States in 1962.

The summit meeting falls on the anniversary of one of the worst U.S. foreign policy disasters in recent history, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba on April 17-19, 1961, when CIA-supported Cuban exiles were routed in southern Cuba.