PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago – Rebuffing criticism of the warm greetings he exchanged with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, President Barack Obama said Sunday the United States, with its overwhelming military superiority and need to improve its global image, can afford to extend such diplomatic “courtesy.”

Obama, in a news conference capping a three-day meeting of leaders from the Western Hemisphere, also said the U.S. must engage other countries through humanitarian gestures, not simply through military intervention.

Obama said it would be a mistake to measure the Summit of the Americas by specific agreements reached. But by listening to his counterparts and eschewing heavy-handed diplomacy, he said he was creating an atmosphere in which, “at the margins,” foreign leaders are “more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate.”

A running theme of the summit was Obama’s cordial dealings with Chavez, who once called former President George W. Bush the “devil” and who just last month dismissed Obama as an “ignoramus.” The two were photographed smiling and clasping hands.

At one meeting, Chavez made a show of walking around the table and handing Obama a copy of “The Open Veins of Latin America,” a 1971 book by Eduardo Galeano chronicling U.S. and European imperialism in the region.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., told CNN it was “irresponsible” for Obama to be seen “laughing and joking” with the Venezuelan president.

Obama dismissed such concerns. He said the 2008 campaign proved that American voters want the president to engage his counterparts, whether they are avowed friends of the U.S. or not.

Obama said it “was a nice gesture to give me a book. I’m a reader.” He added the election was a referendum of sorts on the argument that U.S. solicitude toward foreign leaders could be seen as a “weakness.”

“The American people didn’t buy it,” the president said. “And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it – because it doesn’t make sense.”

The U.S. has nothing to fear from Venezuela, a large supplier of crude oil to the U.S., Obama said. “Its defense budget is probably 1/600th of the U.S.,” he said. “They own (the oil company) Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez, that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”

That said, Obama aides were not so charitable toward Chavez. In a background briefing earlier, one senior official accused Chavez of performing for the cameras.

Impressed with Obama, Chavez seemed ready to re-evaluate relations with the U.S. He announced he was considering appointing an ambassador to Washington, D.C., an idea he discussed over the weekend with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The two countries expelled each other’s ambassadors last year.

Although Cuba’s fate was not part of the official agenda of the summit, many Latin American leaders pressed Obama to lift the 47-year-old trade embargo and to normalize relations with the island nation. Obama resisted.

His administration has loosened travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans wishing to visit family, but Obama called upon Cuban leader Raul Castro to move toward a more open and democratic form of government.

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