PORT OF SPAIN: President Barack Obama will on Saturday meet with a dozen of his Latin American counterparts at a summit dominated by the possibility of a thaw in the long-frozen ties between the US and Cuba.
Obama will meet face to face from 1200 GMT with counterparts from South America, including fervent critics of the United States such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia.
Cuban developments have increased the chances the Obama administration will look to heal long-standing differences with other regional leaders, and the president on Friday enjoyed a cordial handshake with vocal US opponent Chavez.
This was after he seized an extraordinary overture from Cuba to propose talks aimed at breaking the half-century of hostility between Washington and Havana that has prevailed since the Cold War.
Obama told the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago that he wanted to establish "a new beginning" with Cuba that would recognize past US "errors," but require reciprocal gestures from the communist island.
The conciliatory language raised the prospect of the United States considering an end to its 47-year-old embargo on Cuba.
Several other leaders at the summit -- including those from Argentina, Nicaragua and Belize -- voiced a general consensus in Latin America that the embargo should be scrapped and Cuba readmitted into regional bodies.
The summit gets into full swing on Saturday. The three-day gathering of 34 countries in the Americas -- all, in fact, except Cuba -- was meant to address common energy, environmental and public security challenges in a succession of plenary sessions.
But an unexpected gesture of conciliation by Obama towards Cuba on the first day overshadowed those issues.
"I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues -- from drugs to migration and economic issues to human rights, free speech and democratic reform," the US president said.
The proposal came after a surprise overture from Cuban President Raul Castro, who on Thursday said he now stood ready to discuss "everything" with Washington -- including specifically the hot-button issues of human rights, press freedom and political prisoners.
The only condition was that US officials respect Cuba's self-determination and treat its representatives as equals.
Obama, who early this week lifted curbs on Cuba-Americans' contacts with Cuba, said Havana still had to give some concrete signs it was willing to engage and stopped short of mentioning a possible end to the embargo.
He stressed, though, that the United States had changed from its Cold War days, and was "willing to acknowledge past errors, where those errors have been made."
Chavez, Cuba's closest and most vocal ally, offered an opportunity for another gesture of conciliation at the summit, briefly shaking hands with Obama late on Friday.
A photograph of the moment was quickly distributed by Venezuelan officials, one of whom said Chavez told Obama in Spanish: "I shook hands with (former US president George W.) Bush with this hand eight years ago. I want to be your friend."
Obama responded by thanking Chavez in English, the official said, admitting the encounter had been "brief."
The new US president has received a warmer welcome than that given Bush at the last Americas summit, in Argentina in 2005. Bush had to dodge anti-US protesters and left early on that occasion after an altercation with Chavez.