Page last updated at 14:53 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 15:53 UK

Obama 'to star' at Americas summit

By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

Many leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean are meeting US President Barack Obama for the first time at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

Woman looks at Obama merchandise in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago - 16/4/2009
Obama merchandise is proving popular in Trinidad and Tobago

There is no doubt he will be the star of the show.

But analysts say it is unlikely that the US president, after just three months in office, will be announcing any major policy shifts - even on Cuba - or new detailed proposals for US-Latin American relations.

Rather he will be keen to show Latin American leaders a new tone of listening to the concerns of the region and to offer a more multilateral and respectful approach.

"Regional leaders will want to see a different tone and texture in the diplomacy of the new US administration," says Peter Hakim of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

"But more than anything else, they will want to hear his thinking about concrete problems and opportunities," he adds.

Global economic crisis

Top of their list will be President Obama's policy responses to the global economic downturn.

Many of the region's leaders say that this is the first crisis for several decades that was not "made in Latin America".

They blame the US and the West for the downturn, which is having a hugely negative effect on Latin America's economies.

There is more democracy in Cuba than in the United States
Hugo Chavez
Venezuelan president

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil has famously blamed the "irrational behaviour of white, blue-eyed people" for the crisis.

The Inter-American Development Bank recently gave a very bleak assessment of the prospects for the continent. It predicted that the seven largest economies in the region may grow by just 0.1% on average in the next four years.

The UN's leading research body on the region, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac), has warned that the increase in poverty and unemployment will raise the threat of social unrest and instability.

Mr Obama has spoken of the need to avoid an ideological debate and instead concentrate on "pragmatic and responsible actions".

The draft final statement of the summit is short on concrete proposals to tackle the crisis, and long on worthy commitments to human prosperity, energy security and a sustainable environment.

This is seen as typical of many summits in the Americas which rarely lead to major policy statements or breakthroughs. Analysts say what is more important is whether the leaders discuss major challenges without confrontation.

Venezuelan discord?

This was certainly not the case at the last Summit of the Americas that took place in Argentina in 2005.

There President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela took on former President George W Bush over free trade and other issues, and the summit ended in discord.

Cuban leader Raul Castro (left) and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez (right) in Cumana, Venezuela, 16 April 2009
Hugo Chavez has said Cuba should not be excluded from the summit

This time around free trade is not likely to feature as strongly. And President Chavez has a much more difficult target in President Obama, who is as widely admired in Latin America as President Bush was disliked.

Mr Chavez has already said he will veto the final statement, describing it as "out of place" - an apparent reference to the exclusion of Cuba from the summit.

In a pre-summit statement, he also said that "there is more democracy in Cuba than in the United States".

President Obama is working with President Lula to find a way of reducing the possibilities of confrontation with Mr Chavez and President Evo Morales of Bolivia - the region's most strident critics of the US.

'Most popular politician'

Indeed, many observers see President Obama's relationship with President Lula as the key to a successful summit and a successful relationship with Latin America in the future.

At the recent G20 summit in London, President Obama went out of his way to praise President Lula, whom he called "the most popular politician in the world".

President Lula (Left) and President Obama at the White House - 14/3/2009
The Brazilian and US leaders are seen as key to a successful summit

As the leader of the region's economic powerhouse, Mr Lula will be seeking clarity from Mr Obama on how Washington is intending to recover its economic health, and help pull Latin America up too.

Lula is known to be in favour of Washington giving priority to:

• Avoiding protectionist measures such as the "Buy America" provisions of its economic stimulus package

• Building on the G20 statements to increase resources for multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and regional bodies

• Co-ordinating policy approaches with the rest of the region.

Cuba to feature

President Lula has also made clear that like virtually all the region's leaders, he wants to see a change in Washington's attitude towards Cuba.

"There is no more Cold War, there is no more armed struggle," he has said, "and there's only one group which defends the armed struggle and that's the Farc [rebels in Colombia]".

However, President Obama and his advisers have made it clear that he is unlikely to make any new statement about the possible lifting of the trade embargo on Cuba - something which many Latin American leaders want to see.

Speaking in Mexico before the summit, he said he now expects the Cuban government to make the next move by freeing political prisoners and improving human rights.

Latin American leaders are also pushing for Cuba's reinsertion into the Organisation of American States. Its membership was suspended in 1962.

According to some reports, they would not want to see any pre-conditions put on Cuba's return.

In general, most analysts agree that very few concrete policy announcements will come out of the summit. It will be more about a symbolic shift in tone.

"Latin America will be looking to see how much the Obama administration is prepared to listen," said Simon Whistler of Control Risks.

President Obama's priority, analysts say, will be to narrow the diplomatic gap between Washington and the region that was so prevalent during the Bush administration.

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