President Barack Obama on Thursday unveiled a major clean energy partnership at a Caribbean summit where he sought to reassert U.S. leadership in the region at a time when oil-producing Venezuela's economic clout appears to be receding.
The White House used the occasion to announce an important step toward healing its five-decades-old rift with Cuba, saying the State Department had completed a review of whether to remove the communist-ruled island from a state sponsors of terrorism list.
Obama said he was awaiting the actual recommendation from his aides, but Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate's Foreign Relations panel, confirmed that the agency had recommended removing Cuba from the list. "The United States has a unique opportunity to begin a fresh chapter with Cuba,'' he said.
A green light from the White House for Havana's removal would open the door to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba after 54 years.
Obama arrived in Panama later Thursday to attend a Western Hemisphere summit, where he will cross paths with Cuban President Raul Castro for the first time since the two announced a historic opening between their countries in December.
In Kingston, Caribbean leaders were supportive of U.S. detente with the region's most populous island nation.
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller praised Obama for his Cuba outreach, saying, "You are on the right side of history."
As the first U.S. president to visit Kingston since Ronald Reagan in 1982, Obama faced the challenge of convincing Caribbean island leaders that Washington is genuinely re-engaging after a long period of perceived neglect.
Obama received a warm reception as crowds assembled along his motorcade route Thursday morning to watch and snap photos.
Obama paid homage to legendary reggae singer Bob Marley immediately after landing on Wednesday night, making an unannounced stop at the house in Kingston where the dreadlocked musician lived until his death in 1981.
A big fan of Marley since high school, Obama called the quick tour of the house "one of the more fun meetings that I've had since I've been president."
He later attended a meeting of the 15-member Caribbean Community, or Caricom, to discuss energy, security and trade.
Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie, Caricom's current chairman, complained about illegal gunrunning from the United States to crime gangs in the Caribbean and said more had to be done to stop it.
Financing for energy projects
Obama's meetings focused on improving energy security, reducing energy costs, and fighting climate change, the White House said, announcing $20 million in financing to encourage investment in clean energy projects.
The United States will also partner with Caribbean and Central American countries on energy sector reform, regional integration and clean energy projects.
"One of the greatest barriers to development in the Caribbean ... is expensive, often unreliable and carbon-intensive energy," Obama said.
"Caribbean countries are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and we have to act now."
Some analysts say a key reason why Washington is suddenly paying attention to the Caribbean Basin is it wants to wean the islands off dependence on cut-rate Venezuelan oil that Caracas has long used to wield regional influence.
Many Caricom members participate in Venezuela's discounted Petrocaribe oil program, but Caracas now finds itself in growing economic distress because of low oil prices.
"The dependence in the last decade on subsidized oil imports that are starting to go away will have pretty big macroeconomic effects," said Daniel Restrepo, Obama's former top adviser for Latin America.
Jamaica's energy minister, Phillip Paulwell, was quoted in local media saying any deals with the United States did not mean Jamaica was distancing itself from Venezuela.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has made clear he will confront Obama this week at the Summit of the Americas over new U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials.
While Maduro may try to upstage the rapprochement between Washington and Havana, which threatens to undermine his long-standing alliance with Castro, he's likely to get push-back from regional leaders who welcome better U.S.-Cuba relations.
"The thaw between Washington and Cuba trumps all other issues," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "However close Havana's ties with Venezuela are, I don't think the Cubans want to do anything to upset Obama's new Cuba policy."
In Jamaica, Obama also launched the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative to expand opportunities for emerging entrepreneurs and civil society activists, with participants from Latin America and the Caribbean, including Cuba.
Cuba decision at summit?
Obama's decision on whether to remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list could come at the Summit of the Americas. he had previously vowed to act quickly once he received the State Department's recommendation.
The president has long signaled he is willing to remove the island nation from the list as part of the normalization in diplomatic relations between the two countries he announced Dec. 17. Three other countries are on the U.S. list, accused of repeatedly supporting global terrorism: Syria, Iran and Sudan.
Removing Cuba from the list would clear a major obstacle in the effort to restore diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, paving the way for the reopening of embassies that have been shut for 50 years.
Some material for this report comes from AP and AFP.