Obama Embraces Opening for Talks With Cuba

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- President Obama on Friday embraced new calls from Cuba's communist government to engage in talks-- as well as the possibility that the country could lift press restrictions and free political prisoners as part of those talks. 

At the Summit of the Americas, Obama repeated the kind of remarks toward the Castro regime that marked his campaign for the presidency.

"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," he said at the opening ceremony. "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day."

Raul Castro, brother of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and de facto leader of the island nation 90 miles south of Florida, said Thursday that "everything" would be up for discussion with the Obama administration. He also said the Cuban government may have been "wrong" in avoiding U.S.-Cuba talks in the past. 

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday that the administration was struck by that language. 

"I think the strongest reaction that we all had is the admission that he may have been wrong," Gibbs said aboard Air Force One as the president flew from Mexico City for the fifth Summit of the Americas. "I think that we were particularly struck by that." 

Castro spoke in Venezuela at a meeting of leftist leaders heading to the 34-nation summit here eager to represent Cuba's interests. He said his country's previous refusal to engage the U.S. earlier might have been a mistake. 

"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." 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embraced Castro's overture. "We are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond," Clinton said. 

The only condition Castro set for the talks with Washington was for the White House to respect "the Cuban people's right to self-determination."

Obama noted in his speech at the summit's opening ceremonies that his administration will allow Cuban Americans to visit the island and send money to families back there.

"I've already changed a Cuba policy that I believe has failed to advance liberty or opportunity for the Cuban people," Obama said before expressing optimism that the two countries can move forward.

He then issued a broader call for cooperation in the region.

"The United States has changed over time," Obama said. "It has not always been easy, but it has changed. And so I think it's important to remind my fellow leaders that it's not just the United States that has to change. All of us have responsibilities to look towards the future. ...

"The United States' policy should not be interference in other countries, but that also means that we can't blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere. That's part of the bargain That's part of the change that has to take place. That's the old way, and we need a new way."

Thursday in Mexico City, Gibbs said the White House looked for political, press and human rights reforms in Cuba in response to its lifting Monday of family travel restrictions and remittances from Cuban-Americans back to the island. 

"The ball, so to speak, is probably in a different court," Gibbs said Thursday. "If there are those that are serious about openness and freedom and any other concerns that might be enumerated (by) other leaders that attend this summit -- seeing an increased freedom of the press, seeing a release of political prisoners. We'd be interested to know what the leaders in Cuba and what leaders that might be coming to the summit with that issue on their mind, what they're willing to do and talk about with those in order to demonstrate that there's a willingness to see something happen on the other side." 

But asked by FOX News if the U.S. would make no further concessions to Cuba until it saw concrete action on press freedom, human rights or political reform, Gibbs left open the possibility of further U.S. moves absent Cuban reforms.

"The administration and the president have taken significant steps. We certainly continually evaluate the foreign policy of the United States. I think that we will see and judge the seriousness of this versus the rhetoric based not simply on the actions that we've already taken but by the actions that others can and, we believe, should undertake," he said.