PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad - United States President Barack Obama extended a hand of friendship to America's hemispheric neighbors on Saturday at a summit where he offered a new beginning for U.S.-Cuba relations and accepted a book about the exploitation of Latin America from Venezuela's fiery, anti-American leader.
At the Summit of the Americas, Obama signaled he was ready to accept Cuban President Raul Castro's proposal of talks on issues once off-limits for Cuba, including the scores of political prisoners held by the communist government.
To Latin American nations reeling from a sudden plunge in exports, Obama promised a new hemispheric growth fund, an initiative to increase Caribbean security and a new regional partnership to develop alternative energy sources and fight global warming.
"I have a lot to learn and I very much look forward to listening and figuring out how we can work together more effectively," Obama said.
As the first full day of meetings began on the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Obama exchanged handshakes and pats on the back with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who once likened President George W. Bush to the devil. In front of photographers, Chavez gave Obama a copy of "The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent," by Eduardo Galeano, which chronicles U.S. and European economic and political interference in the region.
Later, when a reporter asked Obama what he thought of the book, the president replied: I thought it was one of Chavez's books. I was going to give him one of mine.
Their exchange on the first full day of meetings at the summit followed a brief grip and grin for cameras that the two leaders had on Friday night when Obama greeted him in Spanish.
"I think it was a good moment," Chavez said about their initial encounter. "I think President Obama is an intelligent man, compared to the previous U.S. president."
In an opening speech to the 34-nation gathering on Friday, the president promised a new agenda for the Americas, as well as a new style.
"We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms," Obama said to loud applause. "But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations."
He also extended a hand to a leader Ronald Reagan spent years trying to drive from power: Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. The Sandinista president stepped up and introduced himself, U.S. officials reported.
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