Updated 2 years ago

Obama Looks to Cuba Thaw to Win Back Latam

As Obama prepares for the summit in Panama , officials are building on his Dec. 17 decision to improve relations with the island that were broken in the 1960s. Obama and President Raul Castro are expected to interact at summit events for the first time since shaking hands at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in 2013, while the State Department could remove the Communist government from the list of state sponsors of terrorism this week.

“The summit would not have happened had there not been some movement with regards to Cuba and Obama knew that,” said Eric Hershberg, who teaches Latin American studies at American University in Washington. “He knew that he couldn’t go to Panama and not have this behind him.”

U.S. officials have said the new approach in Cuba will help smooth over relations with other Latin American nations, allowing for cooperation on issues like trade, energy, climate change and human rights. Yet a March 9 decision to expand sanctions against Venezuelan officials for human rights violations, in which the South American government was labeled a threat to national security, could overshadow the two-day summit.“Venezuela has taken the place of Cuba, temporarily,” as a rallying cause for some Latin American nations, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in an April 7interview.

U.S. diplomats will try to mitigate the opposition by highlighting its rapprochementwith Cuba and playing up the historic encounter between Obama and Castro, Feinberg said. The U.S. leader arrives in Panama after a visit with Caribbean leaders in Jamaica, where Obama will discuss efforts to help the region’s economies, many of which depend on subsidized Venezuelan oil, diversify their energy mix.

Engage U.S.

Regardless, with much of Latin America struggling with slowing growth, leaders including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff are arriving in Panama with plans to engage the U.S. more substantively than in previous years.

“Everyone will arrive with a more cautious tone and greater modesty in terms of their perspective on prosperity and equality in Latin America,” said former Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla. Latin America nations are struggling while the U.S. economy is seen as rebounding, she added.

Rousseff, overseeing a $2.2 trillion economy that Standard & Poor’s forecast will shrink 1 percent this year, said she would meet with Obama in Panama to schedule a visit to the White House later this year. Improving trade is on their agenda after China surpassedthe U.S. as Brazil’s biggest trading partner in 2009. Rousseff had canceled a visit to Washington in 2013 after revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on her.

Regional Support
The leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras will be looking to Obama for signs that more than $1 billion in support to fight crime and drug trafficking will help boost their economies and stem a surge of children toward the U.S. border. Panama and Costa Rica are seeking entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed regional trade deal backed by the U.S.

Business leaders interested in investing in Cuba will be watching Obama and Castro’s body language and parsing their statements for hints about how quickly the trade embargo against the island may end, said Pedro Freyre, chairman of the international practice of Akerman LLP in Miami.

“It’s sort of voyeuristic,” said Freyre, who teaches a seminar on Cuba at Columbia University’s law school. “Is there going to be a handshake? Is there going to be a two-hour meeting? Is there going to be a secret meeting?”

At stake is U.S. access to a nearby market of 11 million people, which has been effectively open to competitors from around the world, including U.S. allies, for decades.

Getting past the debate over Cuba “takes a huge irritant out of our policy for Latin America and the hemisphere,” Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in an April 3 speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.