Saturday, April 18, 2009

President Obama meets Hugo Chavez, and opens door to change in Cuba policy with Raul Castro

Updated Friday, April 17th 2009, 9:35 PM

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President Barack Obama met Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez for the first time at the Summit of the Americas.

WASHINGTON - President Obama made nice with the dictators next-door Friday, signalling to Raul Castro that he will consider lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and warmly greeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"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," Obama said at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

Obama, who has called for "recasting" the relationship, lifted curbs on Cuban-Americans' travel and money remittances to Cuba earlier this week.

Although he was not specific about when or where talks with the Cuban regime might start, he said he hopes to "move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction."

Earlier, responding to an appeal from "Juan in Cuba" at a town-hall type meeting in the Dominican Republic, Secretary of State Clinton also pressed for an opening to Havana, saying the U.S. embargo policy had "failed" in the 50-year standoff with the Communist Castro brothers.

Raul Castro, who took over as Cuban president from his ailing brother Fidel last year, said in Venezuela Friday, "We are open, whenever they want, to discussing everything - human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to discuss."

Clinton called Castro's surprise statement "a very welcome overture."

"We are continuing to look for more productive ways forward in dealing with Cuba," Clinton said, "because President Obama and I and the administration view the present policy toward Cuba as having failed."

At the summit, Obama met Chavez for the first time, shaking hands and smiling with the socialist leader in a photo later released by the Venezuelan government.

Chavez said the introduction was initiated by the President, and that he told Obama he hopes to improve relations between the two nations.

rsisk@nydailynews.com

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