PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad — Trading their warmest words in a half-century, the United States and Cuba pressed ahead Friday with a dizzying series of gestures as leaders of the Americas gathered for a summit. The momentum was so great that the head of the Organization of American States said he'll ask his group to invite Cuba back after 47 years.
In a diplomatic exchange of the kind that normally takes months or years, President Barack Obama this week dropped restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, then challenged his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro to reciprocate.
Within hours, Castro responded with Cuba's most open offer for talks since the Eisenhower administration, saying he's ready to discuss "human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners everything." Cuban officials have historically bristled at discussing human rights or political prisoners, of whom they hold about 200.
The United States fired back Friday, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offering: "We welcome his comments, the overture they represent and we are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond."
And OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said he would ask the 34 member nations to invite Cuba back into the fold. Analysts doubted Insulza known for his political caution would have done so without a nod from Washington.
"We're going step by step," Insulza said. He called on the group to annul the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba because its "Marxist-Leninist" system was incompatible with OAS principles. If two-thirds of foreign ministers agree at a meeting in Honduras next month, the communist government will be reinstated.
But while White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said U.S. officials were struck by Castro's new openness to admit change might be needed, he also said Cuba needed to start making concrete moves toward freedom.
President Barack Obama waves as he arrives for the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
President Barack Obama arrives for the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Friday, April 17, 2009.
US President Barack Obama arrives at Piarco International Airport in Port of Spain, Trinidad April 17, 2009 to attend the 5th Summit of the Americas.
President Barack Obama waves as he arrives for the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain.
Bolivia's President Evo Morales, Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, right, waved during the official photo of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, Summit in Cumana, Venezuela.
A Marine One helicopter, with President Barack Obama on board, prepared to land at the Campo de Marte military field in Mexico City Thursday April 16, 2009. President Obama was in Mexico for a brief official visit on his way to attend the Summit of the Americas in the Caribbean.
President Barack Obama arrived at the Los Pinos presidential residence surrounded by Mexican honor guards in Mexico City.
President Barack Obama, left, smiles during a joint news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at Los Pinos presidential residency in Mexico.
A man waved a flag of US President Barack Obama in Port of Spain, on April 16, 2009 a day before the opening of the 5th Summit of the Americas. Trinidad and Tobago is to become the first Caribbean state to host a summit of the Americas, where a total of 34 countries from across the American continent will converge - all, in fact, except Cuba - excluded due to US pressure, on April 17-19.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, shook hands with Dominican republic's President Leonel Fernandez at the end of a press conference at the national palace in Santo Domingo, Friday, April 17, 2009. Clinton was on a 24 hours official visit to Dominican republic.