PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, April 17, 2009 -- President Obama arrived in Trinidad and Tobago this afternoon for the start of a summit with Latin American leaders -- and though the White House wants to focus on the economy, energy and security, Cuba will be front and center.
Before he departed for his first trip south of the border, Obama preemptively loosened travel, commerce and mail restrictions on Cuba, but he still may face pressure from Latin American leaders who feel that steps were not enough.
President Obama arrived in Trinidad and Tobago this afternoon for the start of a summit with Latin American leaders -- and though the White House wants to focus on the economy, energy and security, Cuba will be front and center.
Before he departed for his first trip south of the border, Obama preemptively loosened travel, commerce and mail restrictions on Cuba.
Tonight, he said the United States seeks "a new beginning" with the Communist nation.
"I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day," Obama said.
Obama reiterated that he is willing to sit down with Cuban leaders to discuss a wide range of issues -- including human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues -- but he wants the conversations to be substantive.
"Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction," Obama said.
But Obama still may face pressure from Latin American leaders who feel that steps were not enough. There is widespread support among Latin American leaders for Obama to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba that was enacted by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, six months after Obama was born.
Latin America experts say that many of the most influential leaders in the region, like President Lula of Brazil, have been speaking in unison for Obama to make a major overhaul of the nation's policy toward Cuba.
"Cuba has enormous symbolism. It's a symbol of Latin America's defiance of Washington and it's a symbol of Washington throwing its weight around with Latin America," said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations. "So the symbolism of doing something serious with Cuba for Latin America is very high. The substance of the policy is important too."
Through his Latin American swing, he's been telling Cuban leaders that the ball is now in their court.
"There are a range of steps that could be taken on the part of the Cuban government that would start to show that they wanted to move beyond the patterns of the last 50 years," Obama said Thursday in Mexico City.
The steps for which the administration is pushing include the Cuban government freeing political prisoners and allowing freedom of speech, religion and travel.
While meeting with other leftist leaders in Venezuela this week, Cuban President Raoul Castro said that he is ready to sit down at the table with the United States and nothing is off-limits.
"We have sent word to the United States that we are ready to discuss everything," Castro said, "human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration welcomes this overture from Cuba.
"We're taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond," she said.
Castro also acknowledged that Cuba may be in the wrong on this issue.
"We're human beings," he said.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the Obama aides were "particularly struck by that."
Obama Shifts on Embargo
Obama's position on the embargo has evolved over recent years.
When he was running for Senate in Illinois five years ago, Obama called for the end of the embargo.
"I think it's time for us to end the embargo in Cuba," he said in January 2004 at Southern Illinois University. "The Cuban embargo has failed to provide the source of raising standards of living and it has squeezed the innocent in Cuba."
But last year while campaigning for the presidency in Miami -- home to many Cuban-American exiles who fiercely oppose any relationship with Cuba -- Obama argued that the embargo gives the United States leverage and said he would maintain it if elected.
Now, the Obama administration is sending strong signals that it wants to change its policies toward Cuba but expects cooperation.
As one White House official said today, "This is not a one-way street; this is a very busy two-way thoroughfare. And the steps that can be taken by the U.S. can also be matched or met by steps taken by Cuba."
Has Chavez Lost His Bluster?
One potential thorn in Obama's side is a carryover from the Bush years -- Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who has threatened to boycott the final summit declaration as a protest of American power and Cuba's exclusion from the summit. Cuba is not invited because it does not have a democratically elected government.
Before the last Summit of the Americas, in Argentina in 2005, Chavez grabbed the spotlight with his anti-American rhetoric and played a role in derailing negotiations at the summit.
Chavez revved up a crowd of 10,000 anti-Bush demonstrators at a rally at a soccer stadium near the summit site, slamming the administration's policies on trade and Cuba, among other issues.
But Latin America experts think it will be hard for Chavez to keep the focus on himself this year.
"President Obama is nothing like the kind of easy target for anti-American rhetoric that President Bush was," Sweig said. "For domestic political reasons, he may feel that he needs to continue this anti-American rhetoric that he has mastered so well. On the other hand, I think he sees Obama as an appealing figure and is trying to figure out exactly how to relate to this man."
Obama is not expected to meet one-on-one with Chavez, but they will participate in summit sessions together.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that Obama will not avoid Chavez or other leaders who have been critical of the United States, but he did not say if Obama would sit down one-on-one with the Venezuelan president.
"If we didn't sit in the same room with people that were critical of this country, we'd probably be sitting in a room all alone. We certainly wouldn't have gone to Europe," Gibbs said. "But the fact that some people have critical things to say, it hasn't and won't deter the president of the United States from looking for areas of common interests."