18 Apr 2009

Obama reaches out to communist Cuba

3:19 pm on 18 April 2009

United States President Barack Obama has pledged to seek a "new beginning" in ties with Cuba as part of a new era of US partnership and engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean.

He told a meeting of leaders at the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad that his administration is prepared to engage with the Cuban government on issues ranging from human rights, free speech and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic matters.

His speech before 33 other leaders came a day after Cuban President Raul Castro said his government was ready to talk about "everything" with the United States, including political prisoners and press freedom.

Earlier this week, Mr Obama relaxed parts of the 47-year-old US trade embargo against Cuba, and the conciliatory signals from both sides have raised hopes across the hemisphere of a historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana.

Mr Obama promised US co-operation to help the region fight the effects of the global economic crisis and confront the challenges of climate change and insecurity posed by drug-trafficking and kidnapping.

Shortly before his address the president shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, one of Washington's most virulent critics in the region.