Sunday, April 19, 2009

Obama Fends Off Latin Leaders’ Criticism on Cuba, Policies

President Barack Obama fended off calls for lifting the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba while pledging to cooperate with Latin American leaders to help the region’s poorest recover from the global economic recession.

Obama heads into the final day of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales saying they refuse to sign the summit’s final declaration because it excludes Cuba.

Obama responded throughout the meetings by saying the U.S. is on a path toward changing the nature of its relationship with Cuba, and actions toward the communist nation will be informed by a desire for democracy, administration officials said.

“Actions speak louder than words,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. Administration officials say it’s up to Cuba to make the next move.

Cuba isn’t at this weekend’s 34-nation meeting, and Latin American leaders, including Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, urged Obama to ease the 47-year-old Cuba embargo.

“How is it possible for us to debate if one or two countries isn’t present?” Morales told reporters in Port-of- Spain. “If we want to discuss economic issues in the hemisphere, everyone should be united.”

“There should be a rapid advancement toward a new relationship with Cuba, based on respect, without conditions,” Chavez told reporters yesterday.

‘Yankee Troops’

Chavez, Uribe, and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner assailed the U.S. during the summit while stopping short of directly criticizing the new Obama administration. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on April 17 greeted Obama with a 50-minute speech that included references to “Yankee troops,” and Fernandez said the U.S. has had “traumatic relations” with the hemisphere.

Obama said during a morning meeting yesterday that he wants to move forward to forge new relationships, while emphasizing that the other countries can’t always make the U.S. a scapegoat.

Chavez, whose country is the fourth-biggest supplier of crude oil to the U.S., said he plans to establish closer ties with the U.S. and is considering steps to send a new ambassador to Washington.

“I have no doubt that there will be, going forward, greater closeness,” Chavez said, according to comments broadcast by Venezuelan state television.

Venezuela has repeatedly accused the U.S. of aiding the political opposition to Chavez, a former Army paratrooper.

‘Policies of Conspiracy’

Another critic is Morales, a former coca grower who has clashed with the U.S. since taking office in 2006. He said “policies of conspiracy” haven’t changed under Obama.

“If there is a real change, a change in economic policy, and if there are relations based on mutual respect, it will be better,” Morales said. “We can’t go back to the past.”

U.S. officials said Chavez, who gave Obama a book yesterday attacking the U.S. and Europe for 500 years of exploiting Latin America, said the Venezuelan leader’s gesture needed to be accompanied by substance.

“Pictures and smiles and handshakes are important, but not nearly the test that we will need to see to determine whether this is in fact a new era or a new opportunity for better relations,” said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser.

‘Lot to Learn’

Obama began the day on a conciliatory note, saying before he sat down with leaders of the South American Union, including Chavez and Morales: “I have a lot to learn, and I’m very much looking forward to listening and figuring out how we can work together more effectively” on energy and security.

During a morning talk among summit leaders on the economy, there was a “recognition that in many ways Latin America was a victim of a storm that had started outside of its borders,” said Lawrence Summers, Obama’s chief economic adviser. There was a “recognition of the gravity of the situation, gratitude for what they perceived as a very different American sensibility than they had been engaged with earlier.”

U.S.-Cuba relations were a flashpoint, with Colombia joining the calls for steps to bring Cuba out of isolation.

“The Colombian government considers it necessary to begin the process of completely reintegrating Cuba,” Colombia’s Uribe told reporters yesterday.

Changes in Cuba

Obama says the U.S. is on a path toward changing the nature of its relationship with Cuba and actions toward the communist nation will be informed by a desire for democracy. Last week he removed all travel limits for Cuban-Americans visiting family in Cuba, ended restrictions on how much money Cuban-Americans can send relatives on the island and allowed U.S. telecommunications companies such as AT&T Inc. to get licenses to operate there.

He also pledged new energy and economy initiatives at the summit, including a $100 million Microfinance Growth Fund for the western hemisphere that the administration says will restart lending that can power businesses and entrepreneurs.

Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, said the U.S. is seeking a new partnership with Latin America on energy and climate change while encouraging emerging economies to embrace clean sources of power and tackle global warming.

“We would like to establish an energy framework and a climate-change framework,” Chu said, specifically citing Chile and Brazil. He said the U.S. doesn’t have a “hard and fast idea” of what such a partnership would entail.

When Obama met with Caribbean leaders April 17, they also discussed offshore tax havens that Obama would like to crack down on and some nations want to keep, Summers said. Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow, in his speech, said the offshore incentives for financial firms provided the Caribbean a boon in an era of globalization.

Tax Havens

Obama said he understood their situation, yet concerns about secrecy and tax evasion are critical to the success of the global economy and that people shouldn’t profit by keeping policies that support the evasion of other countries’ laws.

Overall, Obama stuck to his message of an “equal partnership” and “engagement” as the economic crisis, drug trafficking and security concerns weigh on the region.

Before speaking to the leaders, Obama approached Chavez and introduced himself. Chavez, who last month called Obama an “ignoramus” when it comes to Latin America, told the U.S. president he wants to be his “friend,” Venezuela’s Information and Communications Ministry said in a statement.

Chavez also gave Obama a gift yesterday: a Spanish-language copy of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s book “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.”

When asked by reporters whether he planned to read the book, Obama, who doesn’t speak Spanish, joked: “I thought it was one of Chavez’s. I was going to give him one of mine.”