PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad — Trading their warmest words in a half-century, the United States and Cuba pressed ahead Friday with a dizzying series of gestures as leaders of the Americas gathered for a summit. The momentum was so great that the head of the Organization of American States said he'll ask his group to invite Cuba back after 47 years.
In a diplomatic exchange of the kind that normally takes months or years, President Barack Obama this week dropped restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, then challenged his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro to reciprocate.
Within hours, Castro responded with Cuba's most open offer for talks since the Eisenhower administration, saying he's ready to discuss "human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners _ everything." Cuban officials have historically bristled at discussing human rights or political prisoners, of whom they hold about 200.
The United States fired back Friday, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offering: "We welcome his comments, the overture they represent and we are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond."
And OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said he would ask the 34 member nations to invite Cuba back into the fold. Analysts doubted Insulza _ known for his political caution _ would have done so without a nod from Washington.
"We're going step by step," Insulza said. He called on the group to annul the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba because its "Marxist-Leninist" system was incompatible with OAS principles. If two-thirds of foreign ministers agree at a meeting in Honduras next month, the communist government will be reinstated.
But while White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said U.S. officials were struck by Castro's new openness to admit change might be needed, he also said Cuba needed to start making concrete moves toward freedom.
"They are certainly free to release political prisoners. They're certainly free to stop skimming money off the top of remittance payments. They're free to institute greater freedom of the press," he said aboard Air Force One as Obama flew into Trinidad.
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And Castro didn't retreat from his criticism of U.S. policy, recalling Thursday that the United States has long tried to topple the government that he and his brother Fidel have presided over for 50 years.
"That's the sad reality," he said.
Analysts also cautioned that the week's heady developments do not necessarily mean peace is upon us.
"This is a thaw, but it's a thaw that's going to take some time," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "I wouldn't look for any dramatic breakthroughs. There's a lot of distrust."
Added Peter DeShazo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "These are very preliminary steps, but they are significant."
The U.S. severed all diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, just three months before exiles launched their disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs.
The last significant effort toward talks were secret negotiations between an aide to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and an emissary from the Cuban Communist Party at a crowded coffee shop at New York's La Guardia Airport on Jan. 11, 1975. Negotiators met in New York hotels and private homes over several months, but the move died when Castro sent troops into Angola.
This time, both Obama and Castro have signaled a willingness to sit down face-to-face. Obama was criticized during his campaign for saying he'd meet with Castro without preconditions, and Castro said during a November interview with actor-director Sean Penn that he would meet with Obama, suggesting the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay as a venue.
Any possible talks are likely to include involvement of senior Cuban diplomat Jorge Bolanos, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. Bolanos and Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez greeted members of the Congressional Black Caucus when they visited Havana this month.
Although neither side has set conditions to simply talk, Obama insists Cuba make another move before the U.S. takes more action. Castro, meanwhile, demands the U.S. trade embargo on the island be abolished, something Obama has said will not happen without Cuban moves toward democracy.
The U.S. could balk at Castro's offer to free about 200 political prisoners held on the island, along with their relatives, and send them all to the United States in exchange for five Cubans serving long sentences on espionage charges. On the list are several people convicted of violent acts, including two Salvadorans sentenced to death for Havana hotel bombings that killed an Italian tourist. Cuba currently has a moratorium on the death penalty.
The number of political prisoners held on the island has dropped by a third since Raul Castro assumed power from his ailing elder brother in July 2006. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation then counted 316 prisoners but as of Jan. 30 documented 205 such inmates, including 12 since freed on medical parole.
Another stumbling block toward normalization is the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which forbids U.S. officials from restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba as long as either Fidel or Raul Castro is in charge.
Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker in Cumana, Venezuela; Bert Wilkinson and Nestor Ikeda in Port-of-Spain; and Anita Snow in Havana contributed to this report.