"When you are in a group of 36, it's more difficult to focus just on the regional issues so this gives me an opportunity to hear more directly about challenges and opportunities in the region," Obama said.
The slip-up would be easily overlooked except for the setting and the leader of the meeting where the president said it. Obama spoke at the opening of a meeting of Central American leaders here, a sort of side summit to the main one.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is leading the meeting, a privilege given him by the rotating nature of running these meetings.
By Ortega's count, the summit should have 36 members. It doesn't, but Obama's slip must have pleased Ortega nonetheless.
"There are two representatives missing here today," Ortega said Friday. "They're absent from this meeting. One is Cuba whose crime has been that of fighting for independence, fighting for sovereignty of the peoples. Cuba who's crime has been to offer solidarity without any conditions, with out conditions to our peoples. And just because of that they're punished they're penalized. Another people that is not here present because, different from the case of Cuba, and independent nation.
"This other people is still subjected to the colonialist policies and I'm talking about the sister nation of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. And the day will come when Latin American and Caribbean peoples, as is already happening ... where in that huge alliance we'll have the people of Puerto Rico, I'm convinced the day will come, the day will come," Ortega said.
U.S. officials have declined to comment on he speech except to say Obama wants to focus all of his attention and energy on the future.
On Sunday, Ortega sat to Obama's right during the meeting. Beforehand he greeted Obama warmly with a handshake.
For the record, Puerto Rico has held three elections on the question of its status vis-a-vis the United States. Statehood and commonwealth have run very close, but the independence movement has attracted only 3 percent to 5 percent of the vote.
Cuba is not a member of the Summit of the Americas because it is not a democracy. It is also not a member of the Organization of the American States, although the secretary general of the OAS has called for that ban to be lifted.