Obama: Relations Won't Improve 'Overnight'

Obama optimistic about progress in meetings with Latin American leaders.

ByABC News
April 19, 2009, 4:08 PM

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, April 19, 2009 — -- 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."