Up next for Obama, the Summit of the Americas

McClatchy NewspapersApril 5, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Blood is being shed on the streets of northern Mexico.

Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is ratcheting up his anti-Washington rhetoric.

And pressure is mounting on the United States to make serious changes in its relationship with Cuba -- changes beyond the imminent loosening of restrictions on travel to the island and on Cuban Americans sending money to their relatives back home.

Against that backdrop, President Barack Obama will make his official entrance into Latin America next week when he attends the fifth Summit of the Americas. He will be one of 34 heads of government assembled in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, for what experts say will be a major step in reconciling a bruised and neglected relationship.

It will be the first hemispheric summit in which every head of government was democratically elected. Cuba, which isn't a member of the Organization of American States, was not invited to participate, much to Chávez's irritation.

It will be Obama's first summit in the hemisphere, and the first for several of the presidents who will be jockeying for face time with the man who is arguably the world's most popular leader.

`CRUCIAL MOMENT'

''This is an important summit,'' Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for hemispheric affairs, told experts and diplomats assembled at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank last month. ``The summit of Mar del Plata [in 2005] in many ways was evidence of the growing pains that are taking place in the region. I think what we're facing in Trinidad and Tobago is a crucial moment in the history of summitry and in the broader relationships within the Americas.''

Officially, six topics are on the summit agenda: prosperity, energy, the environment, security, democratic governance and the summit process itself.

The economic crisis that threatens to erase the gains in the fight against hemispheric poverty promises to be a vital point of discussion.

The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal both reported Saturday that Obama would announce before the summit that he is lifting long-standing restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting the island and sending money to their relatives in Cuba.

That could conceivably help push Cuba to the sidelines of the summit agenda, although some hemispheric leaders insist it is time for the United States to consider easing or rescinding the trade embargo on Cuba. Obama has given no indication he would go that far.

The president faces the prospect of a grandstanding President Chávez, who during the 2005 summit in Argentina held a rival event nearby. The two leaders are expected to meet face to face at a closed-door retreat with only the 34 heads of government in attendance.

''The last summit, we all know, was not diplomacy's finest hour,'' said Jeff Davidow, a former ambassador to both Mexico and Venezuela who is now a White House special advisor for the summit. ``It would seem to me unfortunate if that were to be replicated, and I know there are topical issues that the United States could raise that any country could raise. I think it's important to go beyond those.''

The United States has long been criticized for dictating policy not just on Cuba but throughout the region, and this summit is Obama's first chance to show his closest neighbors a different kind of foreign policy. In a region still smarting over decades-old interventions by the United States, not everyone is convinced.

McClatchy correspondent Tyler Bridges contributed to this report from Caracas.

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