Energy aid, new diplomacy mark Obama visit to Americas

President Barack Obama smiles as he reacts to comments made by Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, right, during their bilateral meeting at the Jamaica House, Thursday, April 9, 2015, in Kingston, Jamaica.
Associated Press / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) _ As he wades into a region suffering economic and political stresses, President Barack Obama sought Thursday to reassert U.S. influence in the Caribbean and the Americas with pledges of energy assistance and diplomatic fence mending, a mix of modest steps and high ambition for the U.S.’s southern neighbors.

Obama huddled with Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and then separately with leaders of the Caribbean Community, including Simpson Miller, as he opened a three-day trip that will conclude with his attendance at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City.

Obama’s travels come after a year spent devoting increased attention to the region by signing executive orders on immigration, seeking to slow the influx of Central American minors to the U.S. border, tussling with Venezuela over human rights and initiating a historic diplomatic opening with Cuba.

But Obama’s efforts are limited, with his most ambitious one facing potential obstacles from the Republican-controlled Congress and his most recent immigration initiative stalled by court order. A $1 billion spending initiative aimed at Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador’s economic and crime troubles, for instance, requires congressional approval.

Still, punishing electricity costs that are as much as five times more expensive than prices on the U.S. mainland and a lack of energy security have long been major concerns in the scattered islands of the Caribbean. The sun-splashed, wind-swept region derives nearly all of its electricity from plants that burn imported oil and diesel.

Obama on Thursday announced a $20 million effort to help jump start private and public sector investment in clean energy projects in the Caribbean and Central America.

“If we can lower those costs through the development of clean energy and increased energy efficiency we could unleash, I think, a whole host of additional investment and growth,” Obama said.

Energy security on the import-dependent island is a growing concern with the wobbly economy of oil-dependent Venezuela, where the Petrocaribe trade program created by the late President Hugo Chavez has kept Jamaica and much of the region dependent on the South American country for energy.

Venezuela’s shadow hung over not only the Caribbean stop but the upcoming Summit of the Americas where President Nicolas Maduro and his regional allies were likely to confront Obama over his decision to levy sanctions against seven Venezuelans. The sanctions were to protest Maduro’s crackdown on dissent in the country, but Maduro has used them to rally political support by casting the U.S. as an aggressor.

Obama sought to tone down the confrontation with Venezuela in a written interview with EFE News before he arrives in Panama.

“We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government,” Obama said, although he added that the U.S. remains “very troubled” by intimidation of political opponents and erosion of human rights in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration sent a senior diplomat to Venezuela to meet with Maduro before the summit.

“The United States is going to go into a very charged environment when they go to the summit,” said Carl Meacham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Obama, Meacham said, “turned the page on Cuba but it has become a complicated one because of what is happening in Venezuela.’’

Indeed, all eyes Friday will be on Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. Obama said Thursday that the State Department had submitted a recommendation about whether to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Announcing Cuba’s removal from the list at the summit would provide a dramatic counterpoint to Venezuela’s complaints about U.S. meddling in its internal affairs. Congress, however, would have the opportunity to disapprove the president’s action.

The Cuban outreach, however, was already winning praise in the region.

“Mr. President, you are on the right side of history,” Jamaica’s Simpson Miller told Obama.

Associated Press writer David McFadden contributed to this report.

President Barack Obama, center, and Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, third from right, are joined by Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders for a group photo during the start of their summit, Thursday, April 9, 2015, in Kingston, Jamaica.
Associated Press / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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