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Obama travels aimed at re-engaging hemisphere

Barack Obama slammed George W. Bush's policies in the Americas as negligent to friends, ineffective with adversaries and incapable of advancing U.S. interests.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barack Obama slammed George W. Bush's policies in the Americas as negligent to friends, ineffective with adversaries and incapable of advancing U.S. interests.

That was as a candidate. Now, as president, Obama has to keep his promise of revitalizing relations with the rest of the Western Hemisphere — not just to create a better mood, but to achieve real results.

The work begins in earnest this week when Obama travels Thursday to Mexico City. The stop is a clear signal of support for President Felipe Calderon as the U.S. and Mexico grapple with the deadly flow of drugs and weapons hurting both countries.

Obama will spend Friday through Sunday in the twin-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 34 Western Hemisphere nations. The leaders are eager for their own photo-opportunity moments with Obama, but they also want assurances that the U.S. is going to fix its economy and help them recover too.

"The perception coming up from the south (is) that in recent years the United States has turned its attention elsewhere, has neglected its relationships in this part of the world," Jeffrey Davidow, Obama's principal adviser for the summit, told reporters Monday night.

"Whether one agrees with that perception or not, it certainly is a very strongly felt perception," he said. "And I think this summit will give him the opportunity to meet with all the heads of state, listen to them, exchange views and come away with new ideas."

Cuba, as an undemocratic nation, is excluded from the summit. But its relationship with the United States and its role in the hemisphere are sure to be discussed. Obama on Monday lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel to and send money to relatives on the communist island, a move promised in his campaign and timed ahead of the summit to help set a productive tone.

In previewing the trip, White House aides said they could not yet provide details about which leaders would be meeting one-on-one with Obama in Trinidad. They said Obama would be heading to the summit with concrete proposals but declined to name what they were.

Instead, the White House spoke of priority themes: rallying support for bottom-up economic reforms, particularly those that help the "poorest of the poor"; working with other nations to expand renewable energy and reduce global warming; and improving public safety.

Shaking the global recession is the dominant topic on the agenda.

The timing comes as many nations in the hemisphere have felt the crushing effects of an economic swoon after years of relative growth. Analysts say the summit is unlikely to yield any big breakthroughs but could set a new tone for relations, particularly given Obama's popularity in the region and his promises of multilateralism.

The first and only country Obama will visit on his way to the summit is Mexico. His administration so far has made a notable, public show of diplomacy toward the country.

"It's a message of admiration for the courageous steps that President Calderon has undertaken," said Denis McDonough, one of Obama's senior foreign policy advisers. "It is meant to send a signal of respect, mutual respect with our Mexican neighbors."

As Mexico cracks down on organized crime, the violence among the drug cartels, their rivals and soldiers has led to thousands of deaths and crime that has spilled across the border into the U.S.

Obama's administration has pledged more help, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said America's "insatiable" demand for drugs has helped fuel the problem.

Other tense bilateral issues loom.

Mexico has slapped tariffs on nearly 90 U.S. products in retaliation for a U.S. decision to cancel a cross-border program that gave Mexican truckers access north of the border.

McDonough said the administration is working with Congress and Mexico on a resolution, but added, "I think it's premature to anticipate a very specific announcement on that."

On comprehensive immigration reform, which collapsed in Congress during Bush's administration, White House aides say Obama remains committed to it. Obama, already dealing with an enormous agenda, is expected to try to begin an immigration effort this year.

Dan Restrepo, the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, said immigration and the treatment of immigrants are important to Obama and Calderon. He did not answer whether they would be on the agenda for the two leaders' meetings Thursday.