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Will conflict with Venezuela hurt U.S. goals for Americas summit?

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to offer a preview of what to expect at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, including the prospect of a meeting between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro and conflict with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro over U.S. sanctions.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And Margaret joins me now.

    Margaret, welcome.

    So, what should we expect tomorrow, when the summit gets under way in Panama?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, originally, the White House hoped this would be a victory lap for President Obama, given the openings to Cuba. And they were frank, in fact, when the opening was announced last December that, yes, it was done on its own merits, by the timing was driven by this summit.

    The last summit was hijacked once again by all these other countries objecting to the fact the U.S. kept Cuba out. And they said, we have got a big agenda to work with these countries and we want to get that out of the way, clear out that underbrush.

    And so they really thought that he would wave a — he would ride in on a wave of good feeling, also because of his order about protecting a lot of undocumented aliens, which was — immigrants — which was very controversial here, is wildly popular in Latin America.

    But then they kind of stepped in it the way they handled this slapping sanctions on the seven Venezuelan officials.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why was that considered a blunder, and could it do real harm to what they're trying to do?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, Judy, originally, it was done under pressure from the Hill. And, in fact, the actual sanctions were first announced the day after the Cuba announcement with not a peep.

    But then there was terrible repression going on in Venezuela of dissidents and opposition. And as the new year rolled on, the mayor of Caracas was arrested on sedition charges. A 14-year-old boy was killed by a police officer. And people like Robert Menendez, who of course is no longer chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, but had been, Marco Rubio, who are very opposed to the Cuban opening, said, you are just abandoning human rights. Where is the implementation order?

    It's in that order with that language about a grave security threat to the United States that made all these Latin America countries — it smacked of the old justification for U.S. sort of imperialist meddling in Latin America, whether it's supporting coups against communist governments, supporting the Contras against leftist governments.

    And so a lot of the countries of Latin America, they may not agree on everything, from how to run your economy to human rights, but one thing they agree on, they don't like to being treated by the United States as being in their backyard.

    And so far from having the presidents of all these countries come down hard on Maduro for what's going on, they all rallied around him. They are counting — they expect a stunt, they expect a stunt, maybe the presenting of petitions. But they are counting on these other countries who do need the United States now more than ever and the president of Panama, who wants a successful summit, to kind of keep Maduro in a box and not let him hijack the whole summit.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, let me ask you about Cuba.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's, what, been four months since Presidents Obama and Castro announced that they wanted to normalize relations, but since then, not much tangible has happened. Why is that?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

    Well, the two presidents may have agreed in terms of national interest that this is a good idea. And negotiations — they have had three big sessions, all conducted at a very high level, an assistant secretary of state here and a foreign minister in Cuba, and apparently gone very well, with not a lot of overheated rhetoric and all of that.

    But that doesn't mean the bureaucracies are on board, particularly the Cuban bureaucracy. And so Cuba also insisted that before they're ready to let the U.S. take the sign down that says U.S. intersection or put up a U.S. Embassy, that they want off this list, which only has Sudan, Syria and Iran on it. It's an old hangover from the '80s, when…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Countries that sponsor terrorism.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, and Cuba had supported a lot of leftist guerrilla movements. But it's really inappropriate.

    So, but the U.S. has some demands too. And one of them is that its diplomats be able to operate, not have to get clearance to leave Havana, be able to meet with dissidents, the dissidents are free to come in the embassy. So, it's just taking a little bit longer.

    And I think that's one reason why if Presidents Obama and Castro meet at this meeting sort of separately on the sidelines, a bilat, it will be to try to move this along.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, finally, Margaret and very quickly, with all the things going on in the world, with people worried about ISIS, we have been talking about Iran, Americans watching this, watch the summit, some are saying, why should we care so much about what happens in the Americas?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes. Well, and it's a good question, Judy, because it's not a pressing and urgent problem.

    But the fact is, if you took Latin America as a whole — and, of course, it's not like the E.U. — it's not unified — it is the fastest growing U.S. trading partner actually out there in the world. Now, it starts from a very low base.

    Secondly, the fact that it doesn't have nuclear weapons, it isn't a hotbed of terrorism, it is a huge potential asset to have a very friendly and cooperative region right to the south, just as we have with Canada to the north.

    And there have been — they also want — the U.S. would like to have more cooperation on combating organized crime and smuggling networks. And there has been — U.S. intel has picked up some interests from Middle Eastern terrorists, saying, gee, isn't it interesting there are all these tunnels that go from Latin America into the U.S.?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So there are a lot of reasons to treat this as an asset.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we're going to be watching. I know you are going to be watching it in the coming days.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Margaret Warner, thank you.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    My pleasure.

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