Thaw In U.s.-cuba Relations Proceeds

April 18, 2009|By Tribune Newspapers

Progress toward a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations gained unexpected momentum Friday as leaders of the two countries signaled a willingness to open potentially historic talks on issues that have bitterly divided them since the days of the Cold War.

President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning" with the island nation, capping a surge of gestures fed by Cuban President Raul Castro's declaration Thursday that his country "could be wrong" about its approach to its powerful northern neighbor.

The flurry of overtures represented the latest in the diplomatic choreography that began with the election of Obama, who has called for a new openness to Cuba, and who this week began easing rules governing contacts with the island.

The explicit offer to discuss issues such as political prisoners and human rights with U.S. officials was apparently a first for a top Cuban official, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration was struck by the comment.

Obama, arriving at the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of the Western Hemisphere's 34 democratically elected leaders, did not say he would end the statutory U.S. embargo against Cuba. But he indicated an openness to change.

"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," Obama said in Trinidad. "Over the past two years, I have indicated - and I repeat today - that I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues, from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking earlier, addressed Castro's remarks even more directly.

"We welcome this overture," she said at a news conference. "We're taking a serious look at how we intend to respond."

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