PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad — Venturing into an unfamiliar region of the world, President Barack Obama made a splash on a stage of leaders from across the Americas on Friday and promised to offer them a new style of U.S. politics: more pragmatism, less arrogance.
"We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms," the president told the heads of every democratic government across the Western Hemisphere.
"But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership," Obama said. "There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations."
Such an idea _ that the United States is equal, despite being keeper of the world's most powerful military and leader of an economy that helps steer the globe _ was telling.
Obama's drive to reshape the image of the United States as a humble, cooperative partner is perhaps his most significant mission here in this Caribbean nation. Grappling with an economic swoon that has touched them all, the heads of 34 nations have gathered for the first time in almost four years to fashion a fresh agenda _ and in some cases, to size up Obama.
"I'm here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration," Obama said at the opening of the Summit of the Americas in the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. He had entered the room to a roar of applause and was singled out for attention by all the other speakers.
Obama's concessions came after reversals of decades-old policy toward Cuba, the United States' rival just 90 miles to the south. Cuba is not a participant at the summit, but the potential for a sudden upward shift in its relations with the United States is dominating attention.
Until now, Obama had never been south of Mexico in the Western Hemisphere. And until Thursday, the 47-year-old president had only been to Mexico once in his life, during college.
The summit itself is not expected to produce any major breakthroughs. The final document is an already locked-in declaration of joint efforts on the economy, energy and security.
But Obama's mission is broader. It is to get the countries in this part of the world _ a mix of emerging, hurting, tiny and overshadowed places _ to believe the United States is truly engaged.
Much of this region felt left off the U.S. agenda during the Iraq-dominated presidency of George W. Bush, although even Obama acknowledges the problem goes back much longer that that.
"The United States has changed over time. It has not always been easy, but it has changed," Obama said. "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."
In perhaps his sternest line, Obama told his peers that the United States is not to blame for all the problems of the hemisphere _ and that they shouldn't do anything to suggest it is. His comments were driven in part to the grievances aired by some of the leaders who spoke before Obama took the podium.
"The United States will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made," Obama said. "We will be partners in helping to alleviate poverty. But the American people have to get some positive reinforcement."
This week alone, Obama has recast relations with Cuba by lifting a series of sanctions, published an opinion piece in English and Spanish that pleads with the hemisphere to "choose the future over the past," stood with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico City to show solidarity in a festering drug war and immersed himself in this get-to-know-you summit.