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The White House

Press Gaggle By A Senior Administration Official, 4/17/2009

Office of the Press Secretary
(Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago)

For Immediate Release                                         April 17, 2009

Hyatt Hotel
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
8:18 P.M. EDT
MR. HAMMER: This is on background, senior administration official.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, everybody. Thanks for the chance to get together again. Happy Friday night. I think you just want to hear what happened with -- in the meeting of the heads of government, heads of state, before they went into the main hall and they were all accumulating there, as you know, so that they could be ceremoniously announced into the main hall.
So, basically, I think when the President arrived there was about 25 other heads of state or heads of government. The President arrived just a couple minutes after 5:00 p.m. They were supposed to -- everyone was supposed to arrive by 5:00 p.m. And during the time they -- the ensuing I forget how many minutes, say, 50 minutes or so, the President had an opportunity to talk with many of his colleagues from the region.
I know he was particularly eager to catch up with President Uribe of Colombia, Prime Minister Harper of Canada. He had good discussions with many of his -- about the economic crisis with many of his Caribbean peers. And as they were lining up in reverse alphabetical order by Spanish name, President Chavez was first in line, obviously. And over the course of several minutes, different -- the Trinidadian hosts lined up heads of states from each of the countries.
And during that time, the President -- as I say, President Obama, walked across the room and introduced himself to President Chavez, and President Chavez said a couple of things. Consistent with the policy I took some heat from Scott for yesterday, I will not read out what President Chavez had to say. But it was very, very short. The President shook his hand, smiled, and then went back to his position in the line.
While in his position in the line he also had an opportunity to greet President Bachelet of Chile. The President has developed a very good relationship with her over the course of the last several months, and the President was eager to meet her and was glad he had the opportunity to do so. He had a long conversation with President Lula, who, as you all know, he's also developed a very good working relationship with. And while they were all chatting, President Ortega of Nicaragua came in and introduced himself to the President. And I think President Obama said in Spanish, it was his "gusto" to meet him, as well.
Q Said what?
Q His pleasure.
Q Ortega walked over to him?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Ortega walked into the room, in the back of the room, and since the President was at the end -- back of the line, he basically had to walk past President Obama, and stopped and introduced himself.
Q They shook hands?
And then, after that, they all went into the ceremony, which as you know, was lively.
Q One question. The web site from President Chavez said both leaders shook hands and Chavez told President Obama of his desire to change the relations between the nations. Does that correspond with your understanding of their conversation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn't -- I wouldn't dispute that. And as I said, when President Chavez indicated that -- and not necessarily in the exact words, Mark, that you just read, but he did speak in English and say something to that extent -- President Obama simply smiled and went back to his place in the line.
Q Can you clarify where exactly was this happening? Was it literally right outside the room we were just in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I'm not sure the name of the room. I'll get you the name of the room, but they're basically -- as you're entering into that main room, there was a conference room, another enclosed room on the left. I forget the name of the room. Actually --
Q That's okay.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But, in any case, so it was a closed room, and that's where the heads of states were to -- and heads of government were to gather.
Q And can you talk about what President Obama said and what his interest was in going over and making an introduction?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What he said to President Chavez? He said, "My name is" -- you know, he introduced himself -- (laughter) -- and shook his hand, and that's it.
Q He didn't have anything to say of any substance aside from introducing himself?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I didn't say that he didn't have anything to say, Jeff. I said that he didn't say anything other than that.
Q I didn't mean that.
Q He didn't say anything besides, "My name is" --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, he said, "Hello, I wanted to introduce myself." And they shook hands. And then President Chavez talked, and then, as I said, President Obama smiled and went back to his place in the line.
MR. HAMMER: It was the Jade Room, for those that want it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Jade Room was where they met.
Q I saw President Obama stand up on the dais and walk over to President Morales before the singing of the Trinidad and Tobago national anthem. So because they didn't see each other backstage, he was the only one I saw him go over to.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: President Morales was not in the Jade Room. So I think it's -- I have not spoken to the President about that and I didn't witness it, but it does stand to reason that the reason he wanted to go introduce himself is that he didn't -- had not had the opportunity to do so in the prior meeting.
Q Did you expect the harsh rhetoric from Ortega that was spoken at the summit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that the President laid out kind of what he expected and hoped in his remarks, and I think that his hope is and his expectation is that these debates of the past can remain that, debates of the past, and that the leaders can take advantage of this opportunity to focus on what they can do in the future to advance the interests of all the people of the hemisphere.
Q Following up on that, almost every speaker aside from the President called on the U.S. to stop its embargo of Cuba. And I know you've -- all of you have said in the last few days you'd like this summit not to be about Cuba. Is it, though, by way of what the leaders have already said?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think it's just started, obviously, and as I said I think the President believes that this is a very good opportunity to get to take advantage of all these heads of state and heads of government in one -- one location. And they have an awful lot of work to do.
And, Jeff, I think the President made very clear that we hope to see a new day in relations with Cuba. He reiterated what he has said in the past -- namely, that he believes and is very much open to his administration engaging with the Cubans, or with Cuba, on a variety of issues, and he enunciated that tonight.
Q Any more updates on any potential bilateral meetings?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, we -- have you guys walked through the schedule?
MR. HAMMER: They have the general on the multilaterals, but nothing on the bilaterals -- only that they'll be pull-asides, sort of impromptu meetings.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. Yes, you know, obviously tonight's schedule has got a little bit up in the air now I think, but the President does have scheduled a bilateral with Prime Minister Manning, a multilateral with the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM. He has a multilat tomorrow morning with -- is tomorrow morning --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tomorrow morning with the countries of South America, and then a multilat on Sunday morning with Central American countries. Each of those will be open for a spray at the top, and then closed thereafter. So you will all see who they're meeting with.
And then the President is eager to try to find some time for pull-asides with, as I said, Prime Minister Harper, who we've been doing a lot of good work with, including on energy; President Uribe of Colombia; President Garcia of Peru; President Preval of Haiti; and President Bachelet of Chile.
Q But you still think that tonight's meetings will go on?
Q (Makes a face.)
Q Do you think those pull-asides you talked about will happen tomorrow or during Sunday maybe?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're trying to squeeze them into any open opportunity we have in the next two days.
Q Okay, so literally more of a pull-aside than a sit-down bilateral meeting.
Q I was trying to follow the President's speech from the remarks that were sent out by the White House and it looked as though he added a couple of things about the American people needing some positive reinforcement and what have you. I was wondering if that was stuff he'd discussed or if that was just sort of off the cuff. You don't know?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We did not discuss it, but I also don't believe it was off the cuff. I think it was a very thoughtful reaction to some of the comments earlier in the night, which I think we all thought were remarkable.
Q But had that been crafted in advance in case --
All right?
Q Thanks.
Q Can you give us anything more on Ortega, on the conversation with Ortega?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Very short -- a very short conversation, as I said. President Ortega came up and introduced himself and they shook hands and the President said in Spanish that it was a pleasure to meet him. And that was it.
Q Thanks.
Q All right, thank you.
8:29 P.M. EDT