Hopes dim of US-Cuba thaw as Americas summit ends

President Barack Obama dampened hopes of a quick end to a long-standing US trade embargo on Cuba as Havana\’s exclusion from a regional summit scuppered agreement on a joint declaration.

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Although Obama made the historic acknowledgement that Washington\’s half-century policy towards Cuba “hasn\’t worked,” he told the Americas summit in Trinidad and Tobago that it would not be modified any time soon and urged Cuba to give its people more freedoms.

“We\’re not going to change that policy overnight,” Obama told a news conference at the end of the gathering, which brought together 34 heads of state.

“Issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech and democracy are important, and can\’t simply be brushed aside,” Obama said.

Those remarks doused hopes built up last week that led many to believe Washington and Havana might be on course to negotiate an end to the 47-year-old US embargo on Cuba.

Optimism was stoked when Obama lifted curbs on Cuban-Americans visiting and sending money to Cuba.

It took on momentum when Cuban President Raul Castro said he was willing to talk to the US about “everything” — including the previously off-limits topics of political prisoners, freedom of the press and human rights.

But by the end of the summit, Obama and his administration were cautioning that any further US compromises would only follow concrete signs from Cuba that it was serious in engaging them.

“The test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds,” Obama said. The summit itself became a showcase for Obama\’s popularity with leaders who have previously been cool towards the US, including Venezuela\’s President Hugo Chavez, jockeying to be captured in photos with the US president.

But Obama\’s charm offensive was not enough to persuade all the leaders to put their names to a final joint declaration, with several sticking to an earlier vow that they would not endorse the document in solidarity with Cuba, which was excluded from the meeting.

Several nations, including Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras and Nicaragua, agreed ahead of time not to sign the final declaration to show displeasure that Cuba was not invited to the summit.

The gesture also was taken to protest Havana\’s continued exclusion from hemispheric groups like the Organization of American States, from which Cuba was barred in 1962 at Washington\’s insistence.

While Obama did attract some criticism back home for shaking hands with Chavez and accepting a book from him as a gift, he made clear that — as with Cuba — major obstacles remained towards better ties despite “positive signs”.

“I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy,” Obama said.

“There have been instances in which we\’ve seen Venezuela interfere with some of the countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern,” he added. Almost all the leaders said Obama was a genial, open counterpart who seemed genuine in wanting to open a “new era” with them based on standing toe-to-toe.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Obama was helping build “a new dynamic” in the region. But a few others were more skeptical.

“He is the chief of an empire hemmed in by its own rules who will never change,” Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said.

The United States and other countries in the Americas are to consider the Cuba issue again June 2-3 in Honduras, when the Organization of American States will mull dropping a 1962 resolution barring the island from the group.

Although the final declaration document lacked the signatures of several leaders, those who did sign agreed to combat “all forms of organized crime”.

The language was pushed by Mexico where more than 7,000 people have been killed since the beginning of last year in clashes between Mexican drug cartels and security forces.