While US President Barack Obama and his 33 hemispheric neighbors wrapped up a summit Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday, hopes are soaring high for a potential thaw of a half-century cold war between Washington and Havana.
At the opening ceremony of the Fifth Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago, Obama vowed to seek a "new beginning" with Cuba, the only country in the continent that is excluded from the summit.
"I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues -- from human rights, speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues," Obama stated.
Earlier in the week, the Obama administration had already taken measures to remove restrictions on Cuban Americans' family travel and remittances back to Cuba, signaling "a new direction" toward the warming of relations with Cuba.
The conciliatory move prompted a quick response from Cuban leader Raul Castro, who told a regional summit in Venezuela on Thursday that his country was open for talks with Washington about "everything".
"We have sent word to the US government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything -- human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything," he said.
"We could be wrong, we admit it. We're human beings," Castro said. "We're willing to sit down to talk as it should be done, whenever."
Castro's offer for talks was also warmly greeted by senior US officials.
"I think the strongest reaction that people had is the admission by Castro that they might as well have been wrong. I am particularly struck by that," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
In a rare acknowledgment, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US policy toward Cuba had "failed".
The three-day Americas summit was meant to focus on economy and many other issues, but US-Cuban relations apparently took the center stage, accompanied by widespread support among the leaders for the removal of the US embargo against Havana and the return of Cuba to the Organization of American States (OAS). Cuba was expelled from the OAS in 1962 at US behest.
At the close of the meeting, some leaders were already talking about Cuba's participation in the next summit.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he believed this was the last Summit of the Americas without the presence of Cuba.
"The whole continent favors the entrance of Cuba in this summit. There is no longer an explanation for Cuba's exclusion," Lula said.
OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza said he will push for the reinstatement of Cuba to the pan-American group when its members meet in May's general assembly.
"I believe that at the next summit in three years' time, it's reasonable to think that Cuba will be present," Insulza said.
Despite the conciliatory words from both sides, many believe that concrete steps need to be taken before the current momentum loses steam.
While taking Obama's conciliatory gestures to Cuba as "positive", analysts also cautioned against expectations for a quick thaw of US-Cuba relations, citing the lack of substantial steps, such as a promise of US support for Cuba's OAS membership or a call for lifting the embargo, which would require Congressional approval.
The Obama administration, too, was cautious, saying that while there are "positive signs", words need to be matched by actions.
Speaking at the close of the summit, the US president said that Washington's policy cannot be changed "overnight" and that "issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech and democracy are important, and can't simply be brushed aside."
"We're anxious to see the actions of the Cubans," Gibbs said, adding that they shall include "releasing political prisoners, stopping the taking of money from remittances and improving freedom of the press."
It remains unclear how the Cuban government will respond to the US call for such steps. In the past, Cuba has always rejected linking conditions to the normalization of ties.
(Xinhua News Agency April 20, 2009)