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Latin America summit a proving ground for Obama

President Barack Obama is popular in Latin America, unlike George W. Bush, but he faces opposition over U.S. policies on Cuba and assault weapons.

April 16, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — Stepping back onto the world stage, President Obama this week will meet Western Hemisphere leaders at a summit where he hopes to salvage alliances strained by grievances that the U.S. under former President Bush ignored Latin America because of Washington's focus on Iraq and terrorism.

Obama is a popular figure in the region and can expect an enthusiastic welcome. But he also will confront deep resentments over some U.S. policies that he is reluctant to change.

Other leaders want the administration to normalize relations with Cuba and resurrect a ban on the kinds of assault weapons being smuggled into Mexico, commitments Obama is unwilling to make.

Still, Obama is bound to get a better reception than his predecessor. Polls showed Bush to be the least popular American president ever among Latin Americans.

The last summit, held in Argentina four years ago, was widely considered a fiasco. Violent protests dominated the news. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez himself took part in an anti-American rally of 25,000 people.

"The new president is going to be the focus," said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. "Even for someone like Hugo Chavez, who at the last summit made himself the focus, it will be virtually impossible to upstage Barack Obama. This is his coming out party, his cotillion in the Americas, and there's an excitement just to meet the guy, see him up close and get a feel for him."

En route to the summit, Obama will stop in Mexico today to meet President Felipe Calderon.

At the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago beginning Friday, Obama will meet with 33 other democratically elected heads of state and government. Cuba, which does not have a democratically chosen leader, was the only country in the hemisphere not invited.

Obama is leaving the United States soon after an eight-day series of summits and meetings in Europe and Turkey.

Mindful that foreign travel in the midst of a recession is risky politics, Obama gave a well-publicized speech on the struggling economy this week, signaling that hemispheric affairs won't trump the downturn on his list of priorities.

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, said in an interview that Obama can't afford to leave the impression that he is consumed with foreign affairs.

"His reelection is going to hinge on economic recovery," McLaughlin said. "At some point, he has to show that he's making progress."

Ahead of this week's trip, U.S. diplomats were vague on what they hoped the summit would achieve. A main U.S. goal is a modest one: showing the other nations that Washington wants to be a collegial partner.

In that sense, Obama is sticking to a template established at the recent summit of 20 world economic powers in London. Heeding criticism that the U.S. tended to operate unilaterally under Bush, Obama is signaling that he wants to listen.

The U.S. wants to cooperate with other nations on easing the economic crisis, curbing global warming and keeping people safe, Obama administration officials said.

Imagery will count for a lot. At the 2005 summit in Argentina, Bush was once seen off by himself as the other leaders chatted in small cliques. Obama will be a more sociable presence.

"We see this trip as part of the process of the United States reengaging with this hemisphere," said Jeffrey Davidow, a former ambassador to Mexico and Venezuela who is advising the White House on the trip.

An inevitable focus of the summit will be the country that isn't there. The U.S. is likely to face pressure from other nations to drop its economic boycott of Cuba, a legacy of Cold War tensions dating back nearly half a century.

By June 1, all the Latin American countries will have normalized their relations with Cuba. Venezuela, Bolivia and other nations are expected to call for Cuba's full integration into the life of the hemisphere.

However, Obama wants to retain the economic boycott for now, partly as leverage to get Cuba to stop repressing dissidents and move toward democracy.

Hoping to blunt criticism of the embargo, the Obama administration announced this week that it was lifting limitations on travel by Cuban Americans with family in Cuba and on the amount of money they may send back to their relatives.

Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) recently returned from Cuba after meeting Fidel Castro. In an interview, Rush said that Obama's actions had the effect of deflecting criticism of the U.S. "somewhat." Still, Rush predicted that Cuba would be "the 800-pound gorilla" at the summit.

Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: "The United States is not going to announce an end to the boycott. But it's clearly taking a new look at Cuba policy, and that will play well in the hemisphere."

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