At Americas Summit, Leaders to Press U.S.
April 16, 2009 - The New York Times


RIO DE JANEIRO -- When President George W. Bush traveled to Argentina four years ago for a gathering of Latin American leaders, protesters smashed windows, looted stores and sang anti-Bush slogans. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, drew 25,000 to a soccer stadium to rail against the United States' free trade policies.

The summit meeting was a qualified fiasco for Mr. Bush and a low ebb for relations between the United States and Latin America.

Now President Obama is planning to visit Trinidad and Tobago this weekend for the fifth Summit of the Americas, with a chance to dim memories of the last such meeting and re-engage with Latin America, a region that took a distant back seat to the Iraq conflict during the Bush years.

But Latin American leaders are seeking more than re-engagement. They are looking to redefine the relationship.

"I'm going to ask the United States to take a different view of Latin America," Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president, said last month before meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington. "We're a democratic, peaceful continent, and the United States has to look at the region in a productive, developmental way, and not just think about drug trafficking or organized crime."

Leaders from the 34 countries with democratically elected governments that make up the Organization of American States are expected to press Mr. Obama on issues including the global economy and the United States' policies on Cuba and on drugs.

Mr. Bush was the most unpopular American president ever in Latin America, polls showed, while Mr. Obama has rock-star status throughout the hemisphere -- for the moment.

"Yes, there are other leaders coming, but people do not understand that, they only concerned about Obama," said Kenneth Job, a street merchant in Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital, where the meeting will be held.

"He is the main man who everybody love and want to see," said Mr. Job, who sells framed photos of Mr. Obama, and of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Ultimately, Mr. Obama's appeal in the region could be what keeps anti-Americanism in check at the meeting, analysts said. Mr. Chávez, a fiery populist, is also less likely to try to use the event to take a stand against the United States. In Argentina his ire was directed at sinking a free trade agreement, a deal that ultimately died and has yet to be revived.

But the steep decline in oil prices and Brazil's ascendancy in the region may throw Mr. Chávez off balance. "He is not going to have the same support to be defiant or make provocative statements against the United States," said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy research center in Washington.

Senior American officials said they did not expect Mr. Obama to try a formal reconciliation with either Mr. Chávez or with Evo Morales, Bolivia's president. Each leader has expelled American ambassadors in recent months, accusing them of being involved in coup plots.

The conference is focused on "human prosperity," energy security and environmental sustainability, but the global economy will be central for Latin American leaders, including Mr. da Silva, who is still smarting over how the crisis threatens to derail one of Brazil's greatest periods of prosperity in a generation.

White House officials also worry that economic contagion could reverse the region's growth and poverty alleviation in the past half-decade.

"In the last year, these achievements have started to dwindle away," said Jeffrey S. Davidow, the White House adviser for the summit meeting. "There is a real concern that Latin America or the hemisphere may be entering into another lost decade."

The Latin American leaders are hoping Mr. Obama will not shy away from subjects that have historically been taboo at such meetings. In the past, the United States has vetoed discussions about Cuba and shrugged off criticism of its drug policy.

But the Obama administration has signaled it agrees with some leaders in the region who want to rethink the approach to curbing drug violence. Several of the region's leaders have also said in recent months that lifting the embargo with Cuba would go a long way toward repairing relations between Latin America and the United States.

American officials said this week that the president welcomed the discussion, but he is not expected to go beyond steps announced on Monday: lifting restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban-Americans.

"They may not lift the embargo or legalize drugs, but there will be more space to talk about those kinds of things," Mr. Shifter said. "Something could happen on these issues that hasn't really happened before, which is an open debate. That is Obama's style."

Prior Beharry contributed reporting from Port of Spain, Trinidad.