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Latin Americans to challenge Obama on his new Cuban policy shift

US President Barack Obama heads to the Summit of the Americas Friday expecting to face calls from his Latin American counterparts to relax the economic embargo on Cuba and improve relations.

President Barack Obama

Obama has extended a hand to Cuba but Latin America wants more

Barely a week after his first, frenetic overseas trip, US President Barack Obama is to fly into Trinidad and Tobago for the 34-leader Summit of the Americas on Friday. While Team Obama is officially on a mission to create a new dialogue between the northern and southern parts of the American continent, one issue in particular is likely to dominate proceedings: Cuba.

When it comes to US relations with Latin America, Cuba is always the elephant in the room. Despite not actually being in the room – Cuba has not been invited to Friday's gathering – ending the long-standing enmity between Washington and Havana and the 47-year-old US economic embargo is expected to be the issue on everyone's lips.

This is true before the summit has even started.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has developed close personal ties with Cuba's ruling Castro brothers and has long sought to limit US influence in Latin America, made it clear he would push Cuba's case at the summit. "Why is Cuba not at the Summit of the Americas?" he asked on Monday. "This is one of the main questions that from now on will resonate in Trinidad."

Chavez said he would "demand that the empire (the United States) run by Obama lift the blockade on Cuba."

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa also indicated that he would use part of his five-minute speech at the summit to blast the embargo. Cuba, he said, "cannot continue to be excluded from the inter-American system – that's barbaric."

White House officials expect a certain amount of dialogue on Cuba but they hope that more time at the summit will be devoted to their own aim of setting a new tone for relations between the United States and Latin America.

Washington would much rather concentrate on economic reforms, renewable energy, public safety and the fight against drug trafficking – not to mention measures to tackle the global economic crisis.

But if Obama and his team arrive hoping that the summit is not distracted by the Cuban issue, they are likely to have those hopes dashed.

Traditional enmity over US power and influence

While it remains to be seen whether this summit will produce the kind of clashes provoked during George W. Bush's tenure, many observers believe that Obama is about to find out just how far his enormous goodwill and popularity in most of Latin America will stretch – and Cuba may just be the snapping point.

Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Raul

The Castros have the support of the majority of Latin America

"The Cuba issue is very important to Latin American societies," Tom Carothers, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told Deutsche Welle. "It's a symbolic issue, which represents the continuation of the traditional image of the US standing on the neck of some Latin American governments. So it sets a tone that inhibits the United States' position in the region."

The Cuba issue was high on the agenda when Latin American and Caribbean nations met at a summit in Brazil in December where they agreed the ongoing embargo against Cuba was unjust and unnecessary, and should go.

This is a regional attitude that has not been lost on the new president. Obama attempted to defuse tensions on Cuba and moved to calm the region in general by announcing earlier this week that he was lifting curbs on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to the communist-ruled island.

"I think the Obama administration correctly perceived that by making an announcement a week before the summit that they're really starting a process of positive change in US relations with Cuba," Carothers said. "The Americans hope to send a signal to governments and people in Latin America that they would like to reposition the US much more generally in the region.

US will only go so far without Cuban incentives, says expert

Flights arriving from Havana are shown on a monitor at Miami International Airport Monday, April 13, 2009

Relaxing travel to Cuba is a first step in the new US policy

"I think the US is ready to go quite far if it gets some positive response from Cuba," Carothers added. "Already they have, to some extent, put the ball in the court of the Castros, although the Cuban government might not feel that way yet. But the region is now curious, turning its attention to the Cuban government and saying 'now you have a positive signal from the United States, what's your reaction?' So this is a change after 50 years of the region waiting for the United States to make a move."

But while the new administration may have extended a hand, experts believe a full embrace is still some distance away. Washington remains unmoved on the issue of the embargo as long as Cuba remains undemocratic and imprisons political dissidents.

On Thursday, Obama called on Havana to send a signal that there will be "changes in how Cuba operates" to prompt a thaw in relations, ahead of the summit. He called for political prisoners to be released and free speech to be allowed in order to "see a further thawing of relations" between the US and its long-time communist foe.

"If the Obama administration feels that it can get some positive reaction back from the Cuban government, they could engage in a direct discussion, which might allow further steps," Carothers said. "However, I think the administration is unlikely to take a further unilateral step to ease sanctions without getting at least something back from the other side."

Obama hoping to reverse eight years of perceived neglect

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) talks with President of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (L) during their meeting at the Oval Office in the White House, Washington, DC, USA, on 14 March 2009.

Obama has already reached out to leaders like Brazil's Lula

Whether Obama's step-by-step policy towards Cuba will be enough to satisfy his critics in Latin America remains to be seen. The US president may have to offer concrete assurances on a number of other pressing issues if he is to convince his neighbors he's offering 'change they can believe in.'

"This summit has a lot of economic and social issues to deal with," Tom Carothers said. "There is the global financial crisis which is both a common issue and also an issue of division, as the Latin Americans blame the US; then there is the on-going desire to improve and deepen free trade in the region as well as the hope for more US involvement in the war on drugs and some US movement on immigration reform.

"But we should see this summit in a broader context," he added. "We have a new American president trying to change the tone of relations and also change the impression in Latin America that the United States has been neglecting the region for the last eight years."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Chuck Penfold

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