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PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Apr 16 2009 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama may be the star attraction at the three-day meeting, but the U.S. embargo on Cuba – which has not been invited to attend – remains a major issue at this weekend’s Fifth Summit of the Americas to be held for the first time in an English-speaking Caribbean country.
While the Obama administration on Monday eliminated travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban Americans, the new president has made it clear that the trade and economic embargo will not be lifted, at least not in the near future.
Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning, host of the Apr. 17-19 summit, cautiously welcomed Obama’s move this week, but refused to comment in detail, saying, “I don’t want to start the summit now.”
However, speaking to reporters as he toured the site where the summit would be held, Manning said the Cuban question had been on the lips of nearly everyone in the hemisphere when he traveled to several Latin and Central America countries last week on summit business.
“We just have to await the statement by President Obama at the opening ceremony. He is invited to speak in the opening ceremony and he will,” Manning said.
Summit organisers say the 97-paragraph draft Declaration of Commitment defines a renewed cooperation agenda for sustainable development in the Americas, and addresses the main themes of the summit – poverty, climate change to the ongoing global financial crisis.
CARICOM Secretary General Edwin Carrington said the summit should provide a unique opportunity for countries of the hemisphere and the United States to “redefine” their relationships, no doubt hinting at the ongoing efforts by countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia to have Washington remove the near five-decade old trade and economic embargo on Cuba, the only communist state in the hemisphere.
“With all the challenges facing the hemisphere and indeed the world today, it is vital that the United States be fully engaged with all countries in the Americas, including Cuba. This summit, in Trinidad and Tobago, can further that process,” Carrington said over the weekend.
As has been the case since 1994 when the first summit was held in Miami, Havana is not among the invited guests to the Port of Spain gathering. But, unlike previous occasions, this time, its influence is spreading over the Hyatt Hotel in the center of the capital where the 34 leaders will meet.
Dominica, is the only Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member state belonging to the Venezuela-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America (ALBA), said the move by Washington was long overdue.
“Dominica welcomes the move by the United States to reduce the pressure which has been placed on the citizens of Cuba and their relatives especially those living in the United States. We are very happy for that move and we think it’s a move in the right direction,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Vince Henderson.
“Obviously what we would like to see is the lifting of the embargo – it is affecting the Americans as much as it is affecting Cuba,” said Vince, who last month paid an official visit to Havana.
“We would like to express our commitment of support to the Cuban people and government, with sincerity and based on truly Caribbean friendship,” Henderson said in a statement that acknowledged Cuba’s contribution to Dominica’s economic and social development.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit is among ALBA leaders who attended a meeting in Caracas Tuesday called by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez where Cuba was a major talking point.
Bolivia and Caracas have already signaled their intention to seek changes to the agenda for the three-day meeting to include relations with Cuba.
Last week, a seven-member delegation from the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) returned from a visit to Havana where they met with both President Raul Castro and his brother Fidel, and indicated that the Cubans wanted to hold talks with the new U.S. administration.
“We didn’t get into any of the details,” said California Congressional Democrat Barbara Lee, who led the trip. “We just want to see a dialogue. You don’t have to offer anything to talk.”
”What’s at work here is that a lot of people are posturing for position on dealing with Cuba,” said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Affairs.
“For the past 50 years, the Cuban-American community has played a significant role in formulating Cuba policy. For the first time, this will not stop in Miami, but U.S. foreign policy could go directly to Havana,” he added.
Former American diplomat, Anthony Quainton, speaking at a conference organised by the American University’s Council on Latin America last week, said Obama would be attending his first Summit of the Americas without the “heavy baggage” from past tensions between the U.S. and other countries in the region.
But even as the momentum to improve relations with Cuba is reaching levels not seen in nearly three decades, the White House, at least publicly, continues to hold a hard stance against Cuba.
Jeffrey Davidow, the White House Special Advisor for the Summit of the Americas, said Cuba would only be able to participate in future hemispheric talks when there are changes in its policies.
“Cuba was not at the first summit (in Miami in 1994). It still remains an undemocratic state. The United States still hopes to see change in Cuba that, at some point, will allow Cuba to rejoin the inter-American community. But it will not be at this summit,” he said.
On a visit to Trinidad in February, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said he was also certain that in time, Cuba’s isolation within the hemispheric body would be something of the past.
“I am on record since the 1990s when I was foreign minister of my country (Chile) in saying that the good way to deal with the issue of … democracy in Cuba is to return it to the Inter American system.”
Insulza noted that of the 34 countries in the OAS, “31 have normal relations with Cuba” and that the trade and economic embargo had only been able to serve the purpose of those countries that thought “they were going to change a regime in Cuba”.
“They did not succeed,” he told reporters.
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