Cuba, which was not invited to the summit, has normal trade relations with most of the 33 nations attending except the United States. The U.S. began imposing restrictions on Cuba after Fidel Castro became its leader in 1959 and Cuba became a Communist state.
President Barack Obama recently announced the easing of restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, a move he is expected to tout at the summit. The Obama administration has, however, left in place a four-decade-old trade embargo.
Late Thursday, Cuban leader Raul Castro said the country was open to new talks with the U.S., saying “we have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything — human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything.”
In an op-ed the president wrote, which ran in more than a dozen Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. newspapers on Thursday, Mr. Obama urged summit countries to look to the future rather than rehash old debates.
“We must choose the future over the past, because we know that the future holds enormous opportunities if we work together,” he wrote. “That is why leaders from Santiago to Brasilia to Mexico City are focused on a renewed partnership of the Americas that makes progress on fundamental issues like economic recovery, energy, and security.”
As for addressing the current economic troubles, Mr. Obama wrote that the United States has pledged nearly $500 million to help countries hit particularly hard by the recession and is encouraging the Inter-American Development Bank to restart the flow of credit to other nations.
The president also said he is pursuing an energy and climate partnership among the countries that would share technologies and resources.
In the area of security, President Obama has pledged support for countries’ efforts to clamp down on drug cartels and other criminals. Part of the Obama administration’s plan to ramp up border security measures is to coordinate forensic data and intelligence on drug gangs with Mexican authorities.
“Our efforts start at home. By reducing demand for drugs and curtailing the illegal flow of weapons and bulk cash south across our border, we can advance security in the United States and beyond,” he wrote.
“The new president is going to be the focus,” Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Los Angeles Times of the summit. “Even for someone like (Venezuela’s) Hugo Chavez, who at the last summit made himself the focus, it will be virtually impossible to upstage Barack Obama. This is his coming out party, his cotillion in the Americas, and there’s an excitement just to meet the guy, see him up close and get a feel for him.”
The last Summit of the Americas was held four years ago in Argentina. It was punctuated by street protests over President George W. Bush’s aim to persuade attending countries to support a free trade agreement stretching from Argentina to Alaska.
On the Cuba issue, Trinidad’s Ambassador to Washington Glenda Patricia Morean-Phillip told the Miami Herald that although Havana is not on the official agenda, leaders would still likely want to discuss it.
“Latins are very much in favor of admitting Cuba to the hemispheric organizations,” she said. “I think there is a lot of sympathy and support.”