STEVE INSKEEP, host:
President Obama is in Mexico City this morning and later today, he heads to the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. The leaders of every country in the hemisphere except Cuba will be gathering for a meeting of the Organization of American States. Cuba was suspended from that group in the '60s. The rest of the hemisphere will discuss everything from drugs to migration to the economy, as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN: In President Obama's first trip to Latin America, he'll spend the weekend with 33 heads of state from throughout the hemisphere, and it could be contentious. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has already called Mr. Obama a poor ignoramus, and said the new U.S. president should study Latin America.
Chavez held his own, alternative summit ahead of this one, and went to Havana to meet with the only leader who's barred from the conference: Raul Castro. Bolivian President Evo Morales was threatening not to attend because he was on a hunger strike over term limits. But he ended that protest on Tuesday. Cristina Kirchner, who went straight from being the first lady to the president of Argentina, is struggling with a daunting financial crisis at home. And amidst the strong personalities, the region faces serious economic, social and political issues.
Mr. LUIS FERNANDO AYARBE(ph) (State University of Sao Paulo): (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Louis Fernando Ayarbe is from Argentina, but he teaches international relations at the State University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. He says each country has topics that are important for them at the summit. In the case of Brazil, for example, they want the U.S. to eliminate agricultural subsidies and to wrap up the Doha round of trade talks.
Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua are all expected to push for a declaration calling on the U.S. to lift its embargo on Cuba. Free-trade issues were highly contentious during the last Summit of the Americas, four years ago in Argentina. The Obama administration wants to talk about expanding renewable energy sources throughout the hemisphere.
But Fernando Ayarbe in Sao Paulo says the issue that's really on everyone's minds is the United States and whether under President Obama, the U.S. relationship to Latin America is fundamentally changing.
Mr. AYARBE: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The big question, he says, is whether the United States is going to practically show a new approach towards Latin America that respects the autonomy of the various countries.
Under President Bush, Latin America was largely ignored by the White House, which in turn fueled anti-American sentiment in parts of the region. Fernando Ayarbe says countries in Central and South America want a relationship with Washington in which they're treated as equals.
And ahead of the meeting, that's what the Obama administration has been promising. Jeffrey Davidow, the White House adviser on the Summit of the Americas, opened the forum at the Council on Foreign Relations last week saying that the U.S. wants a new foreign policy with Latin America, rather than a policy for Latin America.
Mr. JEFFREY DAVIDOW (White House Adviser): Coming so early in the administration, this is legitimately - can be seen as a new beginning.
BEAUBIEN: Davidow said President Obama is going to the summit to listen.
Michael Shifter with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says the global economic crisis and its effects are going to be at the forefront of the discussions at the summit. Shifter says Cuba will probably provide some spirited debate. But he agrees that the most important thing about this summit is that it's a chance for the world's superpower to re-engage with Latin America.
Mr. MICHAEL SHIFTER (Inter-American Dialogue): I think this is Obama's moment. This is Obama's show. This is his debut. He's never been south of the border.
BEAUBIEN: Shifter says the weekend conference in Trinidad and Tobago will be a chance for regional leaders to talk to President Obama in person, look him in the eye, and see if he's really serious.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.
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