With some economists warning of the potential for another "lost decade" in Latin America, President Obama arrives at a summit of hemispheric leaders Friday calling for reinforced partnerships to counter the backsliding.
The summit gathers the 34 democratically governed countries of the Western Hemisphere. Only communist Cuba is left out – an exclusion dating from the first such summit in 1994, but one that is not sitting well with a number of Latin leaders, including Venezuela's provocative Hugo Chávez. President Chávez is threatening to upend the summit by refusing to sign its declaration, which does not address the US embargo of Cuba.
Obama is hoping to keep the proceedings, which end Sunday, on less emotional topics. His message will be one of revitalized ties and redoubled efforts for shared interests, White House officials say. The president set the tone in an editorial, published in 12 newspapers across the region this week, in which he vowed to "renew and sustain a broader partnership between the US and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security."
But Cuba threatens to steal some of the spotlight – not only because of the last-minute wrench Chávez has thrown into the works, but also because Havana has sent overtures to Washington in response to Obama's action Tuesday that eases some restrictions on the communist island.
This US action – which scuttles limits on Cuban-Americans' travel to the island and adjusts other measures, while leaving the US embargo of Cuba in place – fulfills an Obama campaign pledge. But the timing is also seen as a gesture to regional leaders indicating a new era of US relations.
Questioned in Mexico City Thursday about any further easing in relations with Cuba, Obama said it would depend on "signals" from Cuba's leader that he and others are prepared to respond with their own easing of human rights and other limits on Cuban citizens. In a surprise response that some analysts suggest was timed to turn up the heat for a summit-bound Obama, Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced from a meeting in Venezuela, "We are willing to discuss everything – human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything."
Still, Obama is counting on a broad interest in the region's economic challenges to keep the summit on track, White House officials say.
"The issues that face the Americas today, particularly the economic crisis and the effects of the economic crisis, are going to be the principal concern of the vast majority of the countries and leaders who come to the summit," said Daniel Restrepo, Obama's senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, at a press briefing in Mexico City Thursday.
Despite the fact that the new US president had never set foot anywhere in the hemisphere south of the United States until his stop in Mexico earlier this week, Obama will acknowledge to his 33 colleagues that the US too often ignored its hemispheric neighbors during the past decade.
In part because of that neglect, Obama will encounter a different hemisphere than the one he would have met 10 years ago, say experts in the region. America's neighbors to the south, led by a rising power like Brazil, will be less patient with US priorities, whether it is America's ostracism of Cuba or its traditional focus on issues like drug trafficking and illegal immigration.
Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, set the tone for his fellow Latin leaders when he told Obama Thursday that the region wants a new relationship with the US – one based on more than security concerns and perceptions of a troubled region.
Obama can also expect the neighbors to let him know that they hold the US more than a little responsible for the economic crisis shaking the region. The crisis follows years in which the region had shed basket-case economies in favor of growth that was lifting millions out of poverty.
Yet such concerns seem to fit with the US desire to see the summit and the region focus on working to stave off economic deterioration. Obama will tout the Group of 20 decision earlier this month to boost the International Monetary Fund's capital by $1.1 trillion. But more region-specific efforts in areas like grass-roots economic opportunity and energy will be needed to meet the downturn, White House officials say.
"There [is] a real concern that Latin America or the hemisphere may be entering into another lost decade [like the 1980s] of no growth, maybe even negative growth, with growing poverty," says Jeffrey Davidow, Obama's adviser for the summit and a former ambassador to countries in the region.
The Inter-American Development Bank has warned that if Latin America's growth remains stagnant, more than 15 million a year could fall back into extreme poverty.
"That's pretty dramatic," says Johanna Mendelson Forman, senior associate with Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The message has to be delivered that we don't want to repeat the lost decades, that we want to learn the lessons."