PORT OF SPAIN - Leaders from across the Americas gathered for a summit on Friday after the United States and Cuba said they were ready to talk to try to end a conflict that has marked the hemisphere for half a century.
The prospect of a rapprochement between the long-standing ideological foes dominated the buildup to the Summit of the Americas starting later on Friday in Trinidad and Tobago.
Communist-ruled Cuba is barred from the meeting but Latin American leaders say it is time to bring it in from the cold and are pushing Washington to drop its 47-year-old trade embargo against the island.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who will be meeting most of his peers from Latin America and the Caribbean for the first time, said during a visit to Mexico on Thursday he wanted to recast the U.S. relationship with Cuba, which has remained frozen in Cold War hostility for half a century.
In response, Cuban President Raul Castro said his country was open for talks with the United States about everything.
Human rights, press freedom, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about, he said in Venezuela during a meeting of left-wing allies,
The conciliatory signals from the hemisphere's most emblematic political foes came as Obama, who has promised a new partnership with Latin America, is facing a chorus of calls from the region to end the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
He was expected to hear this call again in Trinidad from many of the 33 other leaders attending the summit, who argue that U.S. efforts to marginalize Cuba are obsolete and have instead ended up isolating the U.S. government in the region.
Earlier this week, the U.S. president opened a crack in the embargo by scrapping restrictions on family travel to Cuba and letting U.S. firms bid for telecommunications licenses.
But he has made clear he expects Cuba to reciprocate by opening up more political freedom for its people. Cuba is said to have about 200 political prisoners, whom it considers mercenaries for the United States. It also severely limits freedom of expression, puts limits foreign travel by its citizens and does not hold multi-party elections.
BACKDROP OF ECONOMIC WORRIES
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.
Cuba insists that any relationship with its neighbor 90 miles north across the Florida Straits must be on equal terms and respectful of its sovereignty. Raul Castro repeated that demand on Thursday even as he said he was ready to discuss the thorniest of issues like political prisoners and press freedoms.
The issue of Cuba-U.S. relations is set to frame the summit in Port of Spain, even though it is not on the formal agenda, which talks of confronting the global downturn and energy and security challenges.
Obama hinted earlier he was willing to leave behind entrenched ideological positions of the past to seek practical solutions to the serious problems facing the Americas, in particular the global economic downturn that has hit the United States as hard as it is squeezing the rest of the region.
Years of progress in combating poverty and inequality hangs in the balance. The United States is working to advance prosperity in the hemisphere by jump-starting our own recovery, Obama wrote in a pre-summit op-ed article.
To confront our economic crisis, we don't need a debate about whether to have a rigid, state-run economy or unbridled and unregulated capitalism -- we need pragmatic and responsible action that advances our common prosperity, he added.
Obama's conciliatory message may not be enough to appease more virulent critics of U.S. policy, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who has condemned Cuba's exclusion from regional groups and says he will not endorse the draft declaration from the Port of Spain summit.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the pragmatic socialist who leads Latin America's economic powerhouse, is also seeking changes in U.S. policy toward the region, including Washington's attitude to Cuba.
There is no more Cold War, Lula said after speaking with Obama by telephone on Thursday.
Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962 at the height of the Cold War.
The summit meeting falls on the anniversary of one of the worst U.S. foreign policy disasters in recent history, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba on April 17-19, 1961.
CIA-supported Cuban exiles were routed in a battle that consolidated communist rule 90 miles from U.S. soil.