Obama: Relations Won't Improve 'Overnight'

President Barack Obama concluded his trip to Latin America today, but not before affirming his hopes that the overtures of the Summit of the Americas are only the beginning of a larger shift in the relations within the region.

"We can and must work together in areas of mutual interest and where we disagree we can disagree respectfully," Obama said.

The president scoffed at criticism that the dialogues constituted U.S. weakness, suggesting this debate from last year's campaign had been settled.

"The whole notion was that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with a government that had previously been hostile to the U.S., that somehow that would be a sign of a weakness," Obama said. "The American people didn't buy it."

The president described three pillars of the Obama doctrine, discussing that while the U.S. is the strongest country it needs to work with others. Better relations with other nations will ultimately benefit the United States, said Obama, who also added that the country must learn to admit when it fails to meet its own ideals.

"That allows us to speak with great moral force and clarity," he said.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba became one of the summit's most contentious issues, as Obama faced pressure to lift the long-standing policy -- a change he had once supported.

In 2004, Obama, who was running for the Senate at the time, said, "The Cuban embargo has failed to provide the source of raising standards of living and it has squeezed the innocents in Cuba."

But asked about his change of heart today, Obama defended his position and joked that 2004 "seems like eons ago."

"The policy that we've had in place for 50 years hasn't worked the way we want it to," he said. "The Cuban people are not free and that's our lodestone, our North Star when it comes to our policy in Cuba."

The president suggested that while the lifting the embargo could be a tool in exacting important concessions from Cuba, it is not a move that is likely to come quickly.

"We're not going to change that policy overnight," he said. "I am persuaded that it is important to send the signal that issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and democracy, that those continue to be important, that they're not simply something to brushed aside."

The trip to Trinidad brought outreach to and from the U.S. adversaries, particularly between Obama and Cuban President Raoul Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

In one of the most talked-about encounters of the summit, Chavez gave the president a copy of a 1971 book that assails the "pillaging" of Latin America by Europe and the United States.

This was the second stunt of the trip by Chavez, who despite calling Obama an "ignoramus" in March rushed to post photos of his handshake with the U.S. president onto his government's Web site Friday night.

While the White House said that the president was not likely to read the book, Obama said he appreciated the gift.

"I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book," Obama said today before leaving Trinidad, when he was asked what he "really thought about the gift." "It was a nice gesture."

"And you know I think it's just that Chavez is better at positioning the cameras," Obama joked of the media frenzy that erupted after the gift was given Saturday.

The president seemed eager to head home -- despite joking that he'd miss the region's warm weather -- pointing out that upon his return to the states he'd shift his focus back to the economy.

Obama will visit Iowa, where his presidential career took off, later this week.