PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — President Obama was forced to confront long-standing resentment of U.S. dominance of Latin America as he told regional leaders Friday evening that his administration seeks an "equal partnership" with the rest of the hemisphere.
"There is no senior partner or junior partner," Obama said after a pair of harshly critical speeches from the leaders of Argentina and Nicaragua at the opening ceremony of the 34-nation Summit of the Americas. "There is just engagement based on mutual respect."
Obama's drive to reshape the image of the United States as a humble, cooperative partner is perhaps his most significant mission at the summit. Grappling with an economic swoon that has touched them all, the heads of 34 nations have gathered for the first time in almost four years to fashion a fresh agenda — and in some cases, to size up Obama.
Although Obama's remarks were greeted with enthusiastic applause, the message of a new partnership was overshadowed by opposition to U.S. policy toward Cuba, the only Latin American country not invited to the hemispheric gathering.
As he sat on the stage with them, several speakers called on Obama to lift what Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner called the "anachronism" of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo of the island.
"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," Obama countered in his own speech. "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day."
Obama's message was not entirely new; he has said in the past that he was willing to engage with Cuba. But making a public pledge before leaders of 33 other nations, many of whom he had not yet met, gave his words added heft.
Earlier in the week, Obama lifted restrictions on travel to the island by Cuban-Americans. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress to lift all travel restrictions and ease the embargo.
But events appeared to be outpacing the administration's efforts to adjust its Cuba policy on its own terms. Earlier Friday, the secretary general of the Organization of American States said he would ask its membership to readmit Cuba — ejected in 1962 at U.S. urging — when that organization meets next month. Obama did not say whether he was willing to support Cuba's membership.
"Let me be clear," Obama said. "I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking. But I do believe we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction."
Those sentiments drew warm praise from Kirchner and from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Ortega said he felt ashamed that he was participating in the summit without the presence of Cuba, evoking images of the collapse of the Berlin Wall by saying, "I am convinced that wall will collapse, will come down."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said recently he would refuse to sign the official declaration produced at the summit meeting because Cuba was not invited.
There are no plans for Chavez and Obama to meet privately, but White House officials said in advance of the meeting that the two would participate in at least one small group leaders' meeting and that Obama would not spurn any outreach by Chavez, who frequently referred to President George Bush as "the devil."
In a sign of how times have changed, the Venezuelan government issued a statement recounting Chavez's words to Obama as they shook hands at the summit: "I greeted Bush with this hand eight years ago. I want to be your friend."
The summit itself is not expected to produce any major breakthroughs. The final document is an already locked-in declaration of joint efforts on the economy, energy and security.
But Obama's mission is broader. It is to get the countries in this part of the world — a mix of emerging, hurting, tiny and overshadowed places — to believe the United States is truly engaged. Much of the region felt left off the U.S. agenda during the Iraq-dominated presidency of Bush.