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Obama Administration's Latin America Policy Could Focus on Cuba, Venezuela

Experts on Latin America say the region is not likely to be a top priority for the Obama administration but the issues of Cuba and Venezuela could draw much of its attention. A group of Latin America experts met in Washington to discuss what policies President Obama might pursue in the Americas.

Experts say Cuba under President Raul Castro -- and Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez will likely draw much of the Obama administration's attention in the hemisphere in coming months.

President Obama promised during his campaign to ease restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba that were imposed by the Bush administration. Also, in his first days in office, Mr. Obama signed a decree to close the detention center in Guantanamo Bay within a year.

All this has prompted experts such as Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue to speculate on possible talks between Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro.

"Raul Castro has said in several occasions that he would like to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. as long as it is without preconditions," Erikson said. "He actually suggested Guantanamo Bay as the location of the conversation between himself and Barack Obama."

U.S. policy toward Venezuela will be another top issue, and experts say much will depend on the world price of oil and the outcome of the February 15 referendum in Venezuela to extend presidential terms.

David Meyers of Penn State University says President Chavez will emerge in a stronger position if the referendum passes and world oil prices start to go up. If not, Meyers says, Mr. Chavez might have to change.

"If Chavez loses the referendum and if oil prices stay down, then I think Chavez may be much more open to some sort of rapprochement [reconciliation], cautiously. We may see the emergence of the democratic Chavez," he said.

Myers said a recent public opinion poll shows the Venezuelan leader has an approval rating of 57 percent, yet this does not mean the referendum will pass.

"If you did the referendum now would you vote to have Chavez re-elected indefinitely to change the constitution or would you opposed it? Thirty-eight per cent say they would vote to have him indefinitely and 52 percent say no," Myers said.

Some of the Latin American experts who met at the George Washington University also discussed how the Obama administration's handling of the US economic slowdown will affect American policy toward the hemisphere. They say it could determine whether the United States keeps its markets open and allows investment capital to flow to Latin America.

Organization of American States head, Jose Miguel Insulza, told the gathering Washington should not just be interested in good relations with its neighbors but also in good trading.

"Latin America is, as a whole, a larger trading partner for the United States than the European Union. Mexico is the U.S.' second most important individual trading partner," Insulza said.

Cynthia McClintock is the director of the Latin American studies at George Washington University. She highlighted the feeling of optimism in the region toward the new Obama administration.

"I think there is a general sense that Latin America is not going to be his top priority and that is in part good," McClintock said. "Because things are going relatively well in Latin America compared to the Middle East."

The experts agreed that other issues like immigration, the free trade agreement with Panama and Colombia, and the fight against drugs will probably take some more time to be redefined under the Obama administration.