Published April 18, 2009
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- President Obama endured a 50-minute diatribe from socialist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega that lashed out at a century of what he called terroristic U.S. aggression in Central America and included a rambling denunciation of the U.S.-imposed isolation of Cuba's Communist government.
Obama sat mostly unmoved during the speech but at times jotted notes. The speech was part of the opening ceremonies at the fifth Summit of the Americas here.
Later, at a photo opportunity with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama held his tongue when asked what he thought about Ortega's speech.
"It was 50 minutes long. That's what I thought."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignored two questions about Ortega's speech, instead offering lengthy praise of a cultural performance of dance and song opening the summit.
"I thought the cultural performance was fascinating," Clinton said. Asked again about the Ortega speech, Clinton said: "To have those first class Caribbean entertainers on all on one stage and to see how much was done in such a small amount of space, I was overwhelmed."
A senior administration official declined to criticize Ortega, saying the president wanted to focus on the future.
"His expectation is that these debates of the past can remain that, debates of the past and that the leaders can take advantage of this opportunity to focus on what they can do in the future to advance the interests of all the people of the hemisphere."
Ortega, meanwhile, droned on about the offenses of the past, dredging up U.S. support of the Somoza regime and the "illegal" war against the Sandinista regime he once led by U.S.-backed Contra rebels in the 1980s. Ortega was a member of the revolutionary junta that drove Anastasio Somoza from power in 1979 and was elected president in 1985. He was defeated in 1990 by Violeta Chamorro and ran unsuccessfully twice for the presidency before winning in 2006.
Of the 19th and 20th centuries, Ortega said: "Nicaragua central America, we haven't been shaken since the past century by what have been the expansionist policies, war policies, that even led us in the 1850s, 1855, 1856 to bring Central American people together. We united, with Costa Ricans, with people from Honduras, the people from Guatemala, El Salvador. We all got together, united so we could defeat the expansionist policy of the United States. And after that, after interventions that extended since 1912, all the way up to 1932 and that left, as a result the imposition of that tyranny of the Samoas. Armed, funded, defended by the American leaders."
Ortega denounced the U.S.-backed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's new Communist government in Cuba in 1961, a history of US racism and what he called suffocating U.S. economic policies in the region.
In his 17-minute address to the summit, Obama departed from his prepared remarks to mildly rebuke Ortega.
"To move forward, we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements. I'm grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old. Too often, an opportunity to build a fresh partnership of the Americas has been undermined by stale debates. We've all heard these arguments before."
Actually, the president misspoke on the sequence of events in Cuba. The invasion of CIA-trained rebels at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba occurred in April 1961. Obama was born August 4, 1961.
Ortega's speech, indulgent even by regional standards, also mocked the very summit he was attending and helping to open.
"This summit and I simply refuse to call it summit of the Americas. Yes, we are gathered here, we have a large majority of presidents, heads of state of Latin America and the Caribbean," Ortega said, lamenting the lack of Cuban participation in the summit due to it exclusion since 1962 from the Organization of American States. "They're absent from this meeting. One is Cuba, whose crime has been that of fighting for independence, fighting for sovereignty of the peoples. I don't feel comfortable attending this summit. I cannot feel comfortable by being here. I feel ashamed of the fact that I'm participating at this summit with the absence of Cuba."