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Cuba issue dominates start of Summit of the Americas

“The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,” Obama says

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — The United States and other key players in the Organization of American States (OAS) including Canada worked to defuse the issue of Cuba’s 47-year suspension from the hemisphere’s biggest club, fearing it would overtake this weekend’s Summit of the Americas.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and 32 other leaders converged on the hot and humid Caribbean island Friday.

Cuba’s Raul Castro was the noticeable absentee, a fact that has been lamented by most of the other leaders including summit host Patrick Manning. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and a handful of others vowed to block the summit’s final declaration over the Cuba problem.

In the most significant preemptive move, the secretary general of the Organization of American State (OAS) announced Friday he would ask members to readmit Cuba.

Jose Miguel Insulza has underlined in the past that the assembly is the place for changes to be made to membership, not the summit.

“We’re going step by step,” OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said, explaining that he will ask the group’s general assembly in May to annul the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba.

Obama has been making conciliatory efforts toward Cuba over the past week, lifting restrictions on travel to the island for Cuban Americans and on the amount of money that relatives can send back to the island.

At a speech during the summit’s opening ceremony, Obama extended a hand to his critics in the region, promising a new, more respectful partnership with the hemisphere while urging them to abandon “stale debates.”

He met the Cuba question head on.

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

Castro surprised many Thursday by responding positively to Obama’s overtures, saying he was willing to have an open discussion with the United States.

“We could be wrong, we admit it. We’re human beings,” Castro said. “We’re willing to sit down to talk as it should be done, whenever.”

Harper said the Canadian government was “hoping to see a thaw,” in U.S.-Cuba relations. The Conservative government has been trying to encourage both sides in their talks.

“Obviously, President Obama has taken some steps and we’re hoping that some of the words we are hearing from the Cuban regime are meaningful,” Harper told U.S. network Fox News Friday from Port of Spain.

But Harper added — as he and his officials have been emphasizing — that they don’t want the Cuba debate to hijack the summit. Harper is keen to talk about trade, public security and other issues on the summit agenda.

“There are certainly more important issues to discuss than Cuban-American relations.”

The Cuba debate has only served to highlight the tenuous state of the summit.

To date, no country had yet stepped forward to offer to host the next meeting. There was grumbling about poor organization in Port of Spain, of indifference by some Latin American countries, and of Cuba’s continued exclusion from the event.

Without the summit, Canada would have no regular venue to meet with leaders in the region and talk trade, investment and security.

“People are looking around and thinking, 'I’m going to six to eight summits a year — why am I going to this one too? Just because the Americans are there, just to meet Obama?”’ said Carlo Dade, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas.

“This summit has to step up and start delivering something, show real progress.”

 
 
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