At Summit, Chávez Seeks Attention as Obama Aims for Something Else

Apr 17, 2009 8:27am

ABC News’ Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report:

Bombastic Venzuelan President Hugo Chávez said Thursday that his country ”will veto” the final declaration issued at Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this weekend.

Chávez doesn’t have the power of veto, of course, but no matter. He says he will make a stink over the fact that Cuba is not a member of the Organization of American States, its membership having been suspended in 1962.

"We’re going to Trinidad and Tobago to put that issue on the table,” Chávez said yesterday. "From the moment the curtain goes up, Cuba will appear on the stage.”

The announcement was met with disappointment by officials in the Obama administration, who say the president is coming to the Summit to "re-engage with a region that felt ignored during the Bush years."

"This decision to — as announced — to not sign the document is something that just came up in the last day or so, and is inconsistent with the negotiations that have been going on for almost a year," U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow said yesterday.

Davidow described the declaration as "a fairly lengthy document that’s been negotiated for the last nine months by all 34 countries, including Venezuela. It’s been a laborious process of negotiation. Many of Venezuela’s points were accepted."

The problem for the U.S. is that Chávez has clout in the region. So even though President Obama announced his administration was relaxing some travel, commerce, and other restrictions on Cuba, the leaders of Nicaragua and Bolivia are talking about following Venezuela’s lead and not signing off on the document to protest the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Dan Restrepo, special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the White House, sought to downplay this all.

"These declarations on some occasions have been signed by the member states at the summit," Restrepo said. "And other occasions they have not been signed by the member states as a group."

President Obama "is going to Trinidad and Tobago to engage in a conversation with folks … to pragmatically deal with the issues that are facing the people of the Americas today, to … leave behind the ideological arguments of the past, leave them in the past and focus instead on how do we work together in partnership with countries throughout the hemisphere to advance on dealing with the economic crisis, on energy and climate future, on citizen safety, on the issues that day in, day out, on any street corner anywhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, if you ask folks what they’re most concerned about, it’s those issues."

The Venezuelan leader made a big show of his anti-U.S. sentiment at the last Summit of the Americas, in Mar del Plata, Argentina, organizing and appearing at a ”People’s Summit.”

So this year, in the Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, eyes will be on any interaction between President Obama and Chávez.

The two leaders will not have a formal one-on-one meeting, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have at least some face time together.

On Saturday the two presidents — who have both been open at times to criticizing the other in the past — will sit down in a multi-lateral UNASUR meeting together, along with other countries.

Additionally, while a formal meeting is not scheduled, the White House has said that if approached by Chávez, by nature, President Obama would not turn down a conversation with the Venezuelan leader.

"Every time I pull the president aside to have a conversation we’ve had that conversation," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters in Mexico City. "So I assume he would do the same."

President Obama will arrive in Trinidad for the three-day summit later today and will have a meeting with Trinidad Prime Minister Patrick Manning and later will sit down with CARICOM, the 15 leaders of the 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies.

– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller

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