Obama hails best relations with Americas in 'decades'

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AFP) - President Barack Obama said US relations with other countries in the Americas were the best they have been in decades, as he headed to a regional summit in Panama starting Friday.

Ahead of a two-day summit that is expected to see the first substantive meeting between US and Cuban presidents in half a century, Obama said decades of mistrust were easing.

"It's no exaggeration to say that our relationship with the Americas is the best it's been in many decades," the US leader said, in an interview with Spanish news agency EFE.

"The new chapter of engagement that we've begun with Cuba has been welcomed across the region and is an historic opportunity to also advance regional cooperation and progress."

Speaking in Jamaica on Thursday before jetting to Panama, Obama said his State Department had completed a review that could lead to Cuba being taken off the list of "state sponsors of terrorism."

That would be a key step toward normalising relations, including the opening of a US embassy in Havana.

"That review has been completed," Obama said before meeting with the Jamaican Prime Minister.

"I won't make a formal announcement today about what those recommendations are until I have them."

Obama also tried to head off a possible spat with Venezuela that threatens to cast a shadow on events in Panama.

"Our deep and abiding interest is in a Venezuela that is prosperous, stable, democratic and secure," he told EFE.

He also played down a row over the legal language employed to introduce sanctions against members of the regime, which said Venezuela was a threat to national security.

"We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government," Obama said.

"But we do remain very troubled by the Venezuelan government's efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents."