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First step in a Cuban dance

Obama's reforms in U.S. Cuban policy too much for some, too little for others.


Obama leaves Thursday for an official visit to Mexico City, and will continue from there to the "Summit of the Americas," a gathering of the hemisphere's heads of states, at Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. On both stops of the trip, the president will address the deteriorating economic situation in Latin America.

The White House agenda calls for Obama to "send a very strong signal" of support for President Felipe Calderon's battle against drug traffickers and violence in Mexico, said McDonough. And though there were no promises made by White House aides, the stop in Mexico City is a logical location for the two leaders to announce that progress has been made on the difficult issue of regulating Mexican trucking in the United States.

In the summit in Port of Spain, Obama wants to deal with "the very strongly felt perception" that "the United States has turned its attention elsewhere, has neglected its relationship in this part of the world," said White House adviser Jeffrey Davidow. "We see this trip as part of the process of the United States re-engaging with this hemisphere."

A deliberate pace for re-engagement might suffice in other times, the president's critics say. But Obama's election has stirred hopes and raised expectations in Latin America. He now has a moment of opportunity to reach out to the region's peoples, who have chosen, for their own reasons and to the discomfort of the administration, to make U.S.-Cuba relations a litmus test of American sincerity.

Cuba is of little strategic importance to the United States, Sweig noted, but of considerable symbolic importance to the other nations of Latin America. Rogues like Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez cite the U.S. embargo against Cuba as an instrument of imperialism and oppression, and even America's friends in the region — powers like Mexico and Brazil — find it impossible to defend.

It would cost America little, and Obama would gain a lot, if he would recognize the role of America's Cuban policy as "a barometer of change" for Central and South Americans, Sweig said. US allies would be armed, and foes disarmed.

She said Cuba is "an enormous irritant, disproportionate to its (actual) importance."

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