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U.S. Hopes Rift With Venezuela Won't Overshadow Americas Summit


Before the next election brings his term to an end, President Obama is working to re-establish ties with Cuba.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I do see the possibility, a great hunger within Cuba, to begin a change - a process that ultimately I think can lead to more freedom and more opportunity.

INSKEEP: That's the president talking with NPR this week. He's about to attend the annual Summit of the Americas in Panama. The White House is not ruling out the possibility that Obama could meet with Cuban President Raul Castro. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A former Clinton administration official, Mack McLarty, was one of the architects of the first Summit of the Americas in 1994, and he seems pleased that this forum has endured and matured, making it through what he calls the contentious teenage years.

MACK MCLARTY: There's no question that President Obama, in my judgment at least, goes to this summit from a position of strength and with a wind at his back, unlike in earlier summits where he may have attended with some complicated or crosswinds, so to speak.

KELEMEN: A big part of this, he says, is the new U.S. approach to Cuba. But while countries in the region welcome the warming U.S.-Cuba ties, there's been some concern about how the U.S. has handled another leftist government - Venezuela. Speaking by Skype to the Inter-American Dialogue, Harvard professor Jorge Dominguez says the White House didn't make things easy for itself when it imposed targeted sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials in March and issued an executive order that described Venezuela as a threat to national security.


JORGE DOMINGUEZ: The language is easy to offend. The language is easy to alarm. The language is easy to ridicule.

KELEMEN: Some analysts say the sanctions have actually helped boost the popularity of Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, who's been rallying his base against what he calls Washington's imperialist actions. The White House is trying to limit the damage. A top national Security Council official, Ben Rhodes, says the issue of the wording of the executive order has been overblown. He says this is just pro-forma language.

BEN RHODES: So the United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security. We frankly just have a framework for how we formalize these executive orders.

KELEMEN: And his colleague Ricardo Zuniga says countries in the region share U.S. concerns about the political crisis in Venezuela and the economic fallout.

RICARDO ZUNIGA: We have an interest in the success of Venezuela - in Venezuela's success, its prosperity, its security, its stability, its democracy. We're Venezuela's largest trading partner.

KELEMEN: Officials clearly hope this issue won't interfere with the agenda of the summit, which will include a discussion about human rights and democratic values on the continent.

ZUNIGA: We don't have any hostile designs on Venezuela. On the contrary, we support the efforts of South American governments to promote a political resolution to the very significant challenges that have been affecting Venezuela particularly over the last year.

KELEMEN: But countries in the region have been too silent on the human rights abuses in Venezuela, according to Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. And he thinks that's frustrating to Obama administration officials who thought that changing the U.S. approach to Cuba would lead to bigger dividends in the region, including when it comes to Venezuela.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: They're disappointed. It doesn't work because I think the countries don't see this as a favor that came from the United States. This was something that was long overdue. They've been insisting on it for many, many years, and finally the U.S. acted. And it wasn't something that was done for Latin America; it was done for the interest of the United States, which had been isolated in the region and globally because of the Cuba issue for many years.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration had been hoping that by now the U.S. and Cuba would have reopened embassies in Washington and Havana, but this rapprochement is taking more time than expected. In a move that could speed things up, Cuba is expected to be taken off the terrorism blacklist soon, a move Cuba says is necessary to re-establish diplomatic ties. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.