PORT OF SPAIN- U.S. President Barack Obama sat down with South American leaders on Saturday, saying he was ready to listen and learn after promising an era of more regional cooperation and a new start with communist Cuba.

At the start of the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Obama is offering a regional partnership to counter the impact of the global economic crisis on the lives of the hemisphere's 800 million people.

I have a lot to learn and I am very much looking forward to listening and figuring out how we can work together more effectively, Obama told reporters before going into a meeting with key leaders from South America ahead of the summit's plenary sessions in Port of Spain.

The meeting, the first Summit of the Americas to be held in the English-speaking Caribbean, is looking to forge coordination to develop energy resources, tackle the dangers of climate change and the threats of arms- and drugs-trafficking.

Shortly before the summit's opening session late on Friday, Obama shook hands with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, a strident critic of Washington's policies and a leftist standard-bearer for anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America.

As Saturday's meeting started, Chavez, following up on his friendly greeting to Obama, presented the U.S. leader with a book, The Open Veins of Latin America, by left-wing Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Obama accepted the gift with a smile.


Obama told regional leaders on Friday his administration wanted a new beginning with Cuba to try to end an ideological conflict that has marked the hemisphere for half a century. Debate about the future of U.S.-Cuban relations has dominated the buildup to the summit.

Obama said he also was open to discuss with Havana issues ranging from human rights to the economy but he has demanded political reforms from the communist-run island.

His meeting with 33 other leaders from the hemisphere came after Cuban President Raul Castro had said his government was ready to talk about everything with the United States, including political prisoners and press freedom.

Before the summit, Obama eased parts of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and the signals from both sides have raised hopes of a historic rapprochement between Cold War adversaries Washington and Havana.

Cuba is excluded from the Trinidad meeting and in the past has rejected any attempt to link an improvement in ties with Washington with internal reform.

Regional heads of state -- from Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Venezuela's Chavez and Caribbean leaders attending the summit -- have called on Obama to end the long-standing U.S. sanctions against Cuba.