By GINGER THOMPSON
A day after President Obama pledged a new future in Washington’s relations with Cuba, Latin American leaders insisted at a summit meeting in Trinidad that the future is now.
That message followed the president throughout the day on Saturday and even upstaged a photo-op with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, when a reporter asked Mr. Obama whether he was taking tips from Canada’s policy of open engagement with Havana. “I take tips from Canada on a lot of things,” he said with a smile, and kept walking.
And so it was that Cuba, the only country not invited to the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, was a central focus of the meeting for another day. An exchange of conciliatory overtures between President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba has started a buzz of speculation about more substantive dialogue. And the crack in the door Mr. Obama had opened for new engagement with Cuba felt more like unlocking a floodgate.
For the first time, some diplomats said, the question being asked was when — not whether — the next move will be made. The meetings on Saturday made clear, however, that there remains deep disagreement about which country should make that move, and what it should be.
President Obama spent much of the day in the capital, Port of Spain, trying to fend off the mounting pressure by saying that the ball was in Cuba’s court. His aides outlined a series of steps that Cuba, the hemisphere’s last remaining dictatorship, could do to demonstrate a willingness to open its closed society, including releasing political prisoners, allowing United States telecommunications companies to operate on the island and ending government fees on money sent to Cubans by relatives living abroad.
A senior administration official said, “Don’t expect big flashy meetings.” Instead, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic issues, “I think we are entering into a period of testing, maybe a period of testing on both sides.”
But the hemisphere’s leaders continued to press the United States to do more, expressing almost unanimous condemnation for its 47-year-old trade embargo.
“If the objective is to see change in Cuba,” Mr. Harper of Canada said in an interview, “it’s hard to see how a trade embargo would do anything other than keep the economic system closed.”
It is a debate the Obama administration, already grappling with a recession and two wars, had hoped to pre-empt before the meeting even began. Days before the president departed Washington for his first trip to the region, the White House announced it would reverse Bush administration restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans to relatives in Cuba as a sign that the United States was prepared to move relations with Cuba in a new direction.
The Cuban-American community is no longer solidly supportive of the embargo. American businesses are eager to increase trade with Cuba. Both houses of Congress have introduced measures to end all restrictions on travel to Cuba and ease parts of the embargo. And Latin American leaders have rallied against the current United States policy as an anachronistic holdover from the cold war.
Robert Pastor, who served as the Carter administration’s chief Latin America adviser, said: “What’s required is for us to think about normalization with Cuba more like we think about normalization with Vietnam. We never made normalization with Vietnam dependent on them becoming a democratic, market economy.”
Still, there were signs that domestic politics, both in the United States and Cuba, could stand in the way of engagement. Opposition to improved relations with Cuba may no longer have the monolithic hold it once did on Cuban-Americans, but it remains a potent political force.
Ramon Raúl Sánchez, the founder of the Democracy Movement, a Miami-based exile group, echoed that sentiment. “We question the Cuban claim of respect for sovereignty when it is willing to talk to the United States,” he said, “but it is not willing to talk to its own people, who have asked to talk about a variety of serious issues.”
And in Cuba, questions remain about the intent and ability of Raúl Castro to make changes that his brother Fidel long resisted. “I do not believe that Raúl Castro can move in, trying to sit down and talk to the United States, as long as Fidel is alive,” said Andy S. Gomez, a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
At the summit meeting, Latin America’s staunch opposition to the United States’ policy toward Cuba made it difficult for President Obama to talk about anything else. The most theatrical moments were staged by presidents who have long been thorns in the United States’ side: Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia.
Bharrat Jagdeo, the president of Guyana, said he told Mr. Obama on Saturday that he was pleased by the steps the United States had taken so far to change relations with Cuba, but he pressed him to lift the embargo.
He said he did not know whether the United States or Cuba should make the next move.
“I don’t know who is going to pick up the phone and call the other one,” he said, “but I am convinced it is going to happen.”