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US and Cuba relations ready to thaw

LEADERS from across the Americas gathered for a summit yesterday after the United States and Cuba said they were ready to talk to try to end a conflict that has marked the hemisphere for half a century.

The prospect of a rapprochement between the long-standing ideological foes dominated the buildup to the Summit of the Americas, opening yesterday in Trinidad and Tobago.

Cuba is barred from the meeting but Latin American leaders say it is time to bring it in from the cold and are pushing Washington to drop its 47-year-old trade embargo.

US President Barack Obama, who will be meeting most of his peers from Latin America and the Caribbean for the first time, said during a visit to Mexico on Thursday that he wanted to "recast" the US relationship with Cuba, which has remained frozen in Cold War hostility for half a century.

In response, Cuban President Raul Castro said his country was open for talks with the US about "everything."

"Human rights, press freedom, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about," he said in Venezuela during a meeting.

The conciliatory signals from the hemisphere's most emblematic political foes came as Obama, who has promised a "new partnership" with Latin America, is facing a chorus of calls from the region to end the US trade embargo on Cuba. He was expected to hear this call again in Trinidad from many of the 33 other leaders attending the summit.

Earlier this week, the US president opened a crack in the embargo by scrapping restrictions on family travel to Cuba and letting US firms bid for telecommunications licenses.

In the past, Cuba's leadership has rejected such linked conditionality for an improvement in ties, and several Latin American and Caribbean states support Havana in this position.

Cuba insists that any relationship with its neighbor 140 kilometers north across the Florida Straits must be on equal terms and respectful of its sovereignty.

Raul Castro repeated that demand on Thursday even as he said he was ready to discuss the thorniest of issues such as political prisoners and press freedoms.

The issue of Cuba-US relations is set to frame the summit in Port of Spain, even though it is not on the formal agenda, which talks of confronting the global downturn and energy and security challenges.

Obama hinted earlier he was willing to leave behind entrenched ideological positions of the past to seek practical solutions to the serious problems facing the Americas, particularly the economic downturn that is squeezing the region.


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