By CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller
President Obama freely admits that the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba "hasn't worked the way we wanted it to" although it's been in effect for nearly 50 years.
Even so, he made it clear today it will stay in place until Cuban leaders take more overt action to free political prisoners, and permit freedom of the press and democratic elections.
"The Cuban people aren't free and that's our lodestone, our north star when it comes to our policy in Cuba," said Mr. Obama.
During a trip-ending news conference at the site of the Summit of the Americas (where Cuba's exclusion and the U.S. embargo were highly-contentious issues), the president said his concerns about Cuba are "not simply something to be brushed aside."
That puts his policy in line with all of his predecessors, who resisted calls at home and abroad, even from members of Congress, that the embargo be lifted.
Defending the exclusion of Cuba from the Summit, President Obama pointed out that all 34 leaders there were democratically-elected, which "conferred legitimacy" on them. He said that is not the case with Cuba's leaders.
He said his administration won't change its policy toward Havana "overnight," but he feels he has sent a signal to Cuba that he wants to see a "transformation."
Some critics of the embargo say it has more to do with domestic politics than diplomatic principle. There would be political hell to pay in Florida, New Jersey and other places with sizeable Cuban-American populations if a sitting President or other politician advocated lifting the embargo before the Castro regime were overthrown and democracy allowed to take root.
The critics view it as hypocritical that U.S. policy allows enthusiastic trade with China, a Communist nation where political oppression is no less than in Cuba. It's inconsistent to say the least, and yesterday, a senior administration official, under cover of anonymity, admitted as much.
"Look, our relations with each country in the world are a product of our history, our domestic politics. I think if you're arguing for consistency, it's something that we strive for but don't always reach. And that's obviously the case."
In other words, the U.S. will trade with some oppressive countries, if it suits American commercial and political needs.
But Mr. Obama sees "signs of progress" in Cuban President Raul Castro's offer to discuss all issues with the United States, including human rights.
The president said the U.S. would explore that offer "and see if we can make some further steps."
"There are gonna be some ways the Cuban government can send some signals that they're serious about pursuing change," said Mr. Obama.
At an outdoor Q&A session with reporters, in the blistering heat of this twin-island nation, the president also defended the smiles, handshakes and exchanges of pleasantries with two of America's most vocal critics: President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, who delivered a 52-minute anti-American tirade in his remarks during the Summit's opening session on Friday.
Mr. Obama said he doesn't agree with all they said, but insisted no harm was done to American policy by his overtures to them.
He again said he wants a new beginning in U.S. engagement with the Americas, with no nation serving as junior or senior partners in the relationship.
And he went out of his way to disavow the reported plot to assassinate leftist President Evo Morales of Bolivia.
"I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically-elected governments," said Mr. Obama. "That is not the policy of our government. That is not how the American people expect their government to conduct themselves."
And reminded of the case of the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, sentenced by Iran to eight years in prison on charges of espionage, Mr. Obama said he was "deeply concerned" for her safety and said he had "complete confidence" that the allegations that she was a spy are wrong.
He said U.S. officials would be in touch with Iranian officials about the case.
Happy to get out of the heat, he left the terrace of the Hilton Hotel and headed for the airport and the five-hour flight home from this third foreign trip as President.