Despite growing speculation in recent days that President Barack Obama will hold a one–on–one meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at next week's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, there will be no special meeting between the two leaders, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
In fact, Obama may not hold bilateral meetings with any of the 33 other leaders attending the April 17–18 meeting, well–placed U.S. officials planning Obama's trip say.
Instead, Obama will hold just three separate group meetings in addition to the official closed–door session between all participating heads of government.
"There will be a series of meetings where both Obama and Chavez will be present, but I don't think there will be a one–on–one bilateral," the U.S. summit organizer said. "I don't think there will be a one–on–one meeting with anyone."
During the campaign, Obama had vowed to meet "without preconditions" with anti–American leaders such as Chavez. But, under criticism from Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton and former Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, Obama later refined his statement to promise that he would only meet with these leaders after careful "preparations."
Obama's planned group meetings outside the summit's agenda in Trinidad's capital of Port of Spain are likely to be with Caribbean leaders, Central American leaders and a third group made up of heads of state of South America and Mexico, including Chavez.
On Monday, media reports had fueled speculation of an Obama–Chavez bilateral meeting when U.S. summit coordinator Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow was quoted as saying that "the president is going to Trinidad with the interest and desire of talking to all of his colleagues."
But U.S. officials say Davidow was referring to the fact that there will be plenty of opportunity within the summit's closed–door sessions, as well as in the separate meeting with the presidents of South America and Mexico, for the U.S. president to speak with Chavez.
What if Chavez walks over to Obama during a coffee break, I asked. "If they run into one another at a coffee break, my president is not going to run away from him," one U.S. official said.
Chavez has called for a special two–day meeting of his closest regional allies – including Bolivia, Nicaragua and Honduras – for next Tuesday and Wednesday in Caracas.
He said that "our artillery is getting ready" for the Trinidad summit, to, among other things, demand that Washington change its policy toward Cuba and that the 34–country Organization of American States readmit Cuba as a full member. The Caribbean island's membership was suspended in 1962.
Cuba will be the only country in the hemisphere that has not been invited to the Summit, which – under the guidelines of the first such U.S.–organized meeting in Miami in 1994 – is reserved for democratically elected leaders of the hemisphere.
U.S. officials also tell me that, contrary to some media accounts, the Obama administration has not yet decided whether to take any steps regarding Cuba that would go far beyond the lifting of Bush administration restrictions on family travel and remittances, which the White House has already announced.
On Cuba's return to the OAS, Obama is likely to put off that issue for the OAS General Assembly to be held in early June in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, they say.
My opinion: If Obama holds separate meetings with the leaders of various sub–regions of the hemisphere, as officials told me Tuesday, he will be taking the safest route. It won't be an olive branch, nor a snub.
Giving Venezuela's narcissist–Leninist leader a one–on–one bilateral meeting without any guarantees that Venezuela wants to improve relations with Washington would grant Chavez a major propaganda victory. As now Secretary of State Clinton said during the campaign, that would be "irresponsible, and, frankly, naive" on the part of the U.S. president.
On the other hand, the idea floating in U.S. government circles a few weeks ago of granting an official bilateral meeting to one of Chavez's followers – such as Ecuador's Rafael Correa – while snubbing Chavez would be a major embarrassment to the Venezuelan leader that could drive the Venezuelan strongman even crazier – something that the White House may not want.
If current U.S. plans for three regional sub–meetings stand, the Obama administration will be able to wait and see how Chavez behaves in his first encounter with Obama. Under the U.S. strategy, the ball will be in Chavez's court.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.