President Barack Obama said in an exclusive interview with Efe that while the "historic" changes he has made in U.S. policy toward Cuba "are already showing results," neither the United States nor the rest of the region should "remain silent" about the situation in Venezuela.
"It's no exaggeration to say that our relationship with the Americas is the best it's been in many decades," Obama said in his only interview with an international news outlet prior to attending the April 10-11 VII Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Besides addressing Washington's relations with Cuba and Venezuela, Obama reiterated his administration's commitment to helping Central American nations resolve the factors that prompt emigration to the United States, and to achieving immigration reform to normalize the situation of millions of undocumented immigrants who are already in this country.
Obama said he will take the opportunity of the Summit to promote improved competitiveness and expanded trade across the Americas as a way to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
"We're seeing increased contacts between the people of Cuba and the United States, and the enthusiasm of the Cuba people for these changes proves that we're on the right path," he said.
The talks that have followed December's announcement of normalization between Washington and Havana are "the highest-level and most intense set of bilateral discussions with Cuba in decades," the president said.
"Our diplomats are making significant progress and I'm confident that we will be able to move forward with the re-opening of embassies," Obama said in a written response to questions submitted by Efe.
Re-opening embassies "is only one part" of a broader process of normalizing diplomatic relations that were severed in 1961, the president said, noting that the two governments have opened talks on issues such as civil aviation, human rights, and telecommunications.
Washington and Havana still have "significant differences" over issues related to human rights, Obama said, insisting that the United States "will always support universal values such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly."
"During the Summit of the Americas, I'll be meeting with civil society leaders from across the region, including Cuba," he said.
Obama said that neither the United States nor other countries in the region should "remain silent" regarding the situation in Venezuela.
"We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government," Obama told Efe.
"But we do remain very troubled by the Venezuelan government's efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents, including the arrest and prosecution of elected officials on political charges, and the continued erosion of human rights," he said.
Last month, Obama issued an executive order imposing sanctions on members of President Nicolas Maduro's government and declaring the situation in Venezuela a "threat" to U.S. national security, a move that aggravated already tense bilateral relations.
The two governments took a step to ease tensions ahead of the Summit with a meeting Wednesday in Caracas between State Department senior adviser Thomas Shannon and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, the highest-level bilateral encounter in several years.
Obama called for Venezuela to embark on an "internal dialogue" to find "a political solution to the divisions tearing at Venezuelan society."
"We have consistently supported that kind of dialogue, and we continue to see it as the best way for Venezuela to move forward," he said.
Regarding Central America, President Obama said he will "continue to make the case for our $1 billion request to Congress" to support the Prosperity Plan for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, established as a response to last year's flood of migrants - many of unaccompanied minors - from those countries to the United States.
"It's part of our comprehensive approach to partner with Central American countries as they address the underlying factors that have led many in the past to take the dangerous journey north," he said.
More broadly, he described the Summit in Panama as "an opportunity to keep improving the competitiveness of the region" and said the United States "will be encouraging all the countries in the Americas to ratify the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement."
Despite the immense wealth created in recent years in Latin America and the Caribbean, Obama said, "about a third of people across the region still endure grinding poverty."
"This isn't just a drag on economic growth, it's a moral challenge to us all," he said.