President Barack Obama will find himself in perhaps the strongest diplomatic position in years for a U.S. leader when he travels to Jamaica and Panama this week, the result of broad, more intense American engagement in a region that’s long seen itself as neglected.
Cameras will whir and click when Obama greets Cuban leader Raul Castro in Panama on Friday at the Summit of the Americas, a meeting that will showcase his drive to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba after half a century of tensions that have persistently irritated other corners of the hemisphere.
But that’s only one of the issues that matter greatly to the 34 other heads of state or envoys and that Obama has been working on over recent years.
Obama has pushed through domestic immigration revisions, offered up $1 billion of aid to Central America, replaced the “war on drugs” with less militaristic policies, propelled tens of thousands of educational exchanges between the U.S. and Latin America, and moved to address the reliance of small Caribbean nations on Venezuelan oil.
He’s also named a heavyweight envoy to peace talks for Colombia’s half-century-old civil war, a sign that Washington realizes a treaty might be inevitable.
U.S. frictions with Venezuela still vex some in the region and may become a flashpoint at the summit. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro intends to shove a petition into Obama’s hands with millions of signatures in his support. Leaders of Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia, among others, may watch Maduro’s back.
Maduro’s sagging domestic popularity got a bump March 9 when the White House issued an executive order declaring that Venezuela constituted a threat to U.S. national security, a necessary prelude to an order that blocked all the U.S. assets of seven current or former Venezuelan officials.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said Tuesday that the language was “pro forma,” but Latin American leaders latched on to the security-threat wording to recall other U.S. military interventions in their region.
Rhodes sought to walk back the perception that Washington was upping the stakes against Maduro, a populist who’s jailed a number of adversaries, including the chief opposition leader and the mayor of Caracas, while his countrymen deal with shortages of food and other basic goods.
“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” Rhodes said in a conference call with reporters.
Added Ricardo Zúñiga, the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, “We don’t have any hostile designs on Venezuela.”
Despite the tensions with Venezuela, a sense of high expectation is awaiting Obama’s participation at the gathering, the first time in more than a half-century that representatives of all the hemisphere’s countries will sit around the same table.
“This summit, in my view, has the potential to be the most important ever” for the region, said Santiago A. Canton, an Argentine lawyer who’s a program chief at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, an advocacy center with offices in New York and Washington.
While Rhodes said reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of embassies won’t happen before the summit as Obama had hoped, he didn’t rule out the possibility that Cuba could be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism this week.
A State Department review of the designaton is “nearing its conclusion,” he said. The precise timing, Rhodes said, will depend on when State sends its recommendation to the president.
“As soon as I get a recommendation I'll be in a position to act on it,” Obama said in an interview with NPR.
Even before the two-day summit in Panama, Obama will be tackling crucial issues, stopping in Jamaica on Wednesday for a meeting with the 15 leaders of Caribbean nations and dependencies, known as Caricom. The hot topic: energy security. Six of the 11 nations in the Venezuela-led Bolivarian Alliance, a bloc with an anti-U.S. tilt, are Caribbean countries that receive crude oil at subsidized prices from Venezuela.
“We, in looking at the region, saw that a number of Caricom countries have significant energy needs, and at the same time the United States has significant resources,” Rhodes said, noting there would be “concrete outcomes” from the meeting. He declined to detail what they’d be.
McClatchy special correspondent Sreeharsha reported from Rio de Janeiro. Miami Herald reporter Mimi Whitefield contributed to this story from Miami.
Sunday: Cuba takes a seat at Summit of the Americas
Monday: U.S.-Venezuela dispute to dominate summit
Today: Summit to tackle more than Cuba and Venezuela