Region's Leaders Press Obama on Cuba Policy

By Peter Nicholas
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- Foreign leaders have jostled to be in pictures with him and pressed for autographs.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who called the last U.S. president the "devil," gave Barack Obama a book on Latin America and clasped hands with him as if he'd been reunited with an old friend.

Obama proved an able statesman during his trip to Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago that ends Sunday, as he did earlier in the month in Europe. But on both trips he found that personal diplomacy has its limitations -- that a leader's abundant charisma can't overcome hard national interests or policy disputes marinated in decades of resentment.

Obama came to the summit of 34 democratically elected leaders in the Western Hemisphere hoping to talk about issues that invite consensus, environmental protection and economic recovery among them. Many of his counterparts, however, wanted a commitment to end the U.S.'s 47-year trade embargo against Cuba, a commitment Obama would not make.

"It's fair to say there's a disagreement on Cuba," deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough told reporters Saturday night.

On Obama's trip, the limits of personal diplomacy were evident on all sides. Obama stopped first in Mexico City, where he repeatedly praised President Felipe Calderon for his "courage" in combating drug cartels. Obama's stop in Mexico was designed to show solidarity with Calderon.

Calderon made few specific demands of Obama, but he did want the U.S. to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, arguing that since the prohibition lapsed in 2004, the number of these powerful guns showing up in Mexico has soared.

Obama would not relent. White House aides said that re-imposing the weapons ban would be politically untenable, requiring votes of conservative congressional Democrats worried about alienating gun rights advocates.

The president faced much the same reality in his European debut earlier this month. Smitten with Michelle Obama, the paparazzi doted on America's premier power couple. Yet the president came away with major goals unfulfilled.

Although European leaders spoke of the importance of the Afghanistan mission, the 5,000 new troops pledged by NATO failed to include the combat forces sought by Washington, and the $1.1 trillion in loans and guarantees to countries most hurt by the global downturn announced at the Group of 20 summit fell short of the "new global deal" called for by Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Not that there weren't achievements for Obama along the way. A project that Obama has embraced is burnishing the United States' image in the world. His predecessor, George W. Bush, was often criticized for ignoring or dictating terms to world leaders, rather than working collaboratively. To that end, Obama says it's important for him to listen. And he has gotten points for reticence.

During one session at the Summit of the Americas devoted to democratic governance, Obama did not speak at all, McDonough said. He merely listened and took "copious notes," he said.

Obama prepared carefully for the latest summit. The White House knew beforehand that Cuba would be a focus, aides said. Obama was not about to end the embargo, but he did make a concession before arriving in Trinidad, lifting restrictions on Cuban Americans who wish to visit family.

Speaking at the opening ceremony Friday, Obama said, "The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba." The statement followed Cuban President Raul Castro's comment a day earlier expressing willingness to discuss a wide range of traditionally off limit topics, including human rights.

As it turned out Saturday, Obama's statement, which included, "I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues -- from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues," was not enough to defuse the issue.

Increasingly, Latin America has made U.S. policy on Cuba the measure by which to test Obama's pledge to improve relations in the region. That's the case not only for leaders on the left like Chavez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, but also for moderates such as Argentina's Cristina Fernandez.

Fernandez used her opening remarks at the summit on Friday to call for lifting of the "anachronistic blockade."

Cuba is "a theme that is on everyone's mind," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said in a news conference. "The big test was progress in the relations with Cuba. I think a small step in the right direction has been taken. And now what we need is direct dialogue."

Shortly after Fidel Castro took power half a century ago, Washington broke relations with Cuba and persuaded most of the hemisphere to follow suit. Every country has since reversed itself, except the United States.

Experts on the region said that to Latin American leaders, Obama's actions on Cuba may seem small.

Administration officials have cast the liberalized travel policy as historic. But past presidents have gone further.

Julia Sweig, author of a forthcoming book called "Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know," said that former President Jimmy Carter dropped all travel restrictions to Cuba. And another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, allowed Americans to visit Cuba as part of certain cultural exchange programs.

"What they (Latin American leaders) do know is that he only opened the door a little to a handful of Americans," Sweig said. "And some know it was once open much more. By taking only a limited step, he (Obama) paradoxically turns it into more of a Cuba summit than he would prefer."

^Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.<

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