PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad - With frank exchanges and the appearance of a new maturity, regional leaders including a travel-weary but enthusiastic President Barack Obama breathed new life into the Summit of the Americas, a meeting that at least one member thought had outlived its usefulness before this weekend.
The North and South American leaders who came together in Trinidad and Tobago failed to reach unanimity on a final declaration issued at the summit’s close Sunday. But if anything, the decision instead to end the proceedings with only a "consensus" suggested not acrimony, but a new openness to robust dialogue in regional relations.
At a Sunday press conference, Obama hailed a "very productive" event that he said "replaced the ideological divisions of the past with a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to act."
His determination not to be provoked by aggressive, anti-U.S. leaders such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela typified the spirit of the meeting.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted at the summit's close that he wasn't even sure before he arrived if the periodic gatherings continued to serve a purpose _ this was the fifth Summit of the Americas since 1994. But he said that he changed his mind after two days of discussions that revealed, he said, a new "spirit of cooperation" despite different approaches to common challenges.
Officially, the summit focused on three issues: the regional economic crisis, common security threats, and energy development and global warming.
On the economy, the leaders agreed to urge the Inter-American Development Bank, the region's international financing institution, to lend additional capital to help struggling countries confront the economic downturn.
Some leaders balked at signing the summit's declaration because the document was negotiated last fall, before the full impact of the global economic crisis was evident. Publicly, however, some, led by Chavez, held to their threat to snub any final document unless it included a condemnation of the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Cuba was a focus of the leaders' discussions to a degree it never was at earlier summits. That, however, didn't derail the deliberations the way some had predicted it would. As a Communist country without a democratically elected leadership, Cuba is the only nation in the Americas not invited to the summits.
The leaders agreed that the Organization of American States should take up the question of Cuba's return to the regional body at its June meeting in Honduras, and the lack of fireworks over the Cuba issue reflected the promise of a new direction in U.S.-Cuba relations under Obama. The summit followed new measures announced by the Obama administration last week loosening some restrictions on U.S. contacts with Cuba.
The absence of hostilities also stemmed from the embryonic relationship between Obama and Chavez, who'd made a point of antagonizing former President George W. Bush at the last Summit of the Americas in Argentina in 2005.
Obama crossed a room to greet Chavez at an opening gathering Friday night. In response, Chavez told Obama in Spanish, "I want to be your friend." He later presented the U.S. leader with a tome chronicling 500 years of European and American exploitation of Latin America.
Obama refused to interpret the gift as baiting, quipping later: "It was a nice gesture to give me a book; I’m a reader."
That determination to bury old antagonisms was also present when Obama responded to an hour-long opening speech by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, in which the former leftist revolutionary reviewed U.S. actions against Cuba, including the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
"I'm grateful President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old," Obama told chuckling leaders.
Although some in Washington condemned the president's openness to exchange with the likes of Chavez before he left Trinidad, Obama said that America's interests are served when it opens doors, even to its adversaries.
"I did not see eye-to-eye with every leader on every regional issue at this summit," he said before departing, (but) "we showed that while we have our differences we can talk together."
LaFranchi is a staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor.
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