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Cuba likely to dominate Obama's attention at Summit of the Americas

The last time an American president sat down with the heads of state from Latin America and the Caribbean, it was an unruly affair.

President George W. Bush was ambushed in Argentina in 2005 by some of the region's leftist leaders, led by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Four years later President Barack Obama Friday heads to a two-day Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, hoping for a friendlier reception.

Coming off a warm reception in Europe where he soothed concerns over the U.S. handling of the economy, Obama will again stress he is there to listen. He's likely to get an earful.

No more so than over Cuba, the only country not invited to attend the summit.

U.S. officials stress the topic of Cuba is not part of the summit agenda, and so should be left alone. But that would be like ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

"It would be unfortunate if the principal theme of this meeting turned out to be Cuba," said White House adviser for the summit, Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.

In the run up to the summit one leader after another has spoken out against the 47-year-old U.S. embargo, including several U.S. allies. Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva raised it with Obama during an official White House visit last month. "There is nothing any more from the political ... sociological ... humanitarian perspective that impedes the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba," Lula said.

The White House announced a much-anticipated policy shift on Cuba Monday, lifting restrictions on Cuban Americans wishing to visit relatives on the island, or send them money. While that falls far short of an end to the embargo, it is seen as a gesture that will help defuse the Cuba issue at the summit.

As he did in Europe, Obama is likely to recognize the past failings of U.S. policy, while turning attention to the future need for mutual cooperation to restore economic growth and preserve democracy. Davidow reminded reporters that Cuba's one-party political system made Cuba "the odd man out" in a region of 34 democratic states.

Obama lacks experience in Latin America. But he does have some things going for him. "He's not Bush. That helps," said Mark Weisbrot, with the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

U.S. officials say Obama will try and keep the focus on social inclusion as well as regional cooperation on alternative energy and climate change, themes he is at ease with.

While Brazil is pushing hard to end Cuba's isolation, president Lula is unlikely to allow the issue to spoil the summit. He hit it off with Obama at their first meeting. Chatting at the G20 summit in London earlier this month, Obama shook hands effusively with Lula saying "love this guy."

Analysts expect more of the same in Trinidad. "Obama will turn on the charm again and any potential disruption will be neutralized," said Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "I don't think anyone is going to challenge him at the height of his appeal."

U.S. critics in the region still aren't sure how to size up Obama. Even Chavez has lately blown hot and cold when talking about the new U.S. leader.

He called Obama a "poor ignoramus" last month for questioning Venezuela's lack of anti-terrorism cooperation.

But last week Chavez said "good signals" are coming from Washington, citing U.S. Coast Guard cooperation over a large drugs seizure aboard a Venezuelan boat, as well as the indictment of a notorious Cuban American militant in Miami, Luis Posada Carriles, who is linked to a series of 1997 bombings in Cuba.

"I hope that (Obama) will succeed in imposing his fresh presence," Chavez told reporters on a trip to Japan last week. "Hence, we will support him completely."

Cuba likely to dominate Obama's attention at Summit of the Americas 04/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 9:47pm]
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