Apr. 19, 2009 11:23 AM
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad - President Barack Obama on Sunday suggested Cuba release its political prisoners and strongly defended his highly publicized handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the end of overseas trip that he said heralded a new start in U.S. ties with Central America.
At a news conference marking the end of the Summit of the Americas, Obama added that in terms of Cuba and Venezuela, "I do believe that the signals sent so far provide at least an opportunity for frank dialogue on a range of issues, including critical issues of democracy and human rights throughout the hemisphere."
And yet, he quickly added, "the test for all of us is not simply words but also deeds."
Obama loosened aspects of a 50-year-old trade embargo with Cuba before departing Washington, and suggested ways Cuba could respond. "They could release political prisoners," he said, and "reduce charges on remittances" - the money that Cuban-Americans send their families on the communist nation.
The president's greeting of Venezuela's Chavez drew quick condemnation from Republicans back home, but Obama brushed that aside.
He said Venezuela has a defense budget about one-six hundredth the size of the United States', and owns Citgo, the oil company. "It's hard to believe we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States" when he talks with Chavez, he said.
The trip was Obama's first presidential journey to the region, and he said the meeting of heads of state had the potential to create greater progress on economic progress, climate control and immigration.
As he did on a recent trip to Europe, Obama stressed in Central America that the United States is a willing partner, "inclined to listen and not just talk," in trying to advance national interests.
"We recognize that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them," he said, adding that the fact that an idea comes "from a small country, like Costa Rica," should not diminish its potential benefit.
His trip was dominated by images of his handshake with Chavez, the leftist president of Venezuela who once likened former President George W. Bush to the devil, as well as by at least an initial thaw in relations with the communist island-nation of Cuba.
Chavez approached Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the summit and said he was restoring his nation's ambassador in Washington, voicing hopes for a new era in relations after exchanging greetings with Barack Obama.
The Venezuelan leader told reporters he will propose Roy Chaderton, his current ambassador to the Organization of American States, as the country's new representative in a move toward improving strained ties with Washington.
Chavez, an ally of Cuba, a U.S. nemesis, expelled the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, in September in solidarity with leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales, who ordered out the top U.S. diplomat in his country.
Obama loosened the 50-year-old trade embargo slightly with Cuba before departing Washington last Friday, and the government in Havana said it was open to talks on issues including human rights - a topic long held off-limits.
Obama and Clinton both welcomed the remarks.
Reminded that he had once favored lifting the embargo, Obama sidestepped. "The policy we've had in place for 50 years has not worked," he told reporters at the news conference. "The Cuban people are not free."
He said freedom of speech and freedom of religions are important "and not something to be brushed aside."
Back in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans said Sunday that they wanted to see actions, not just rhetoric, from Cuba.
"Release the prisoners and we'll talk to you. ... Put up or shut up," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"I think we're taking the right steps, and I think the ball is now clearly in Cuba's court," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "They need to respond and say what they're willing to do."
Former Central Intelligence Director Michael Hayden, an official in the Bush administration, expressed caution about any changes in U.S. relations with Venezuela.
"Here's a case where I would watch for behavior, not for rhetoric, and the behavior of President Chavez over the past years has been downright horrendous - both internationally and with regard to what he's done internally inside Venezuela."
Central American leaders who met with Obama said they pressed him on immigration reform. They also said that Obama promised to consider providing better advance notice when the U.S. deports dangerous criminals back to their nations.
Even Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, a critic of U.S. policy, said he found Obama receptive to dealing with the issues raised. Ortega said Obama "is the president of an empire" that has rules the president cannot change. Nevertheless, Ortega said: "I want to believe that he's inclined, that he's got the will."
Hayden, Graham and McCaskill spoke on "Fox News Sunday."