U.S. President Barack Obama travels Friday to Trinidad and Tobago to attend the fifth Summit of the Americas, a gathering of all hemispheric leaders minus Cuba.  U.S. officials say the summit is an opportunity to forge a regional response to the global economic downturn, as well as environmental challenges and energy issues, although questions about Cuba could upstage the agenda.

The financial crisis and deep recession have inflicted widespread pain across the Americas.   

Financial crisis is top issue

Confronting the economic downturn and preventing it from boosting hemispheric poverty rates will be urgent priorities at the Summit of the Americas, according U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Tom Shannon.

"We have to protect the social gains that we have made in this hemisphere over the past decade, and ensure that the economic recovery of all the countries in the hemisphere does not come at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society," he said.  

Environmental issues figure prominently 

 The gathering is also expected to address environmental challenges and the need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels.

At previous summits, the United States set forth an ambitious and still unattained goal: forging a vast, hemisphere-wide free-trade zone.  No such grand vision will be unveiled by Mr. Obama in Trinidad, according to the president's special advisor for the summit, Jeffrey Davidow.

"The president is going in a spirit of dealing with these other nations as partners.  He is not going to Trinidad with a plan for the hemisphere.  He is going with the intention of listening, discussing," Davidow said.

Obama warns against protectionism

Mr. Obama has consistently warned against protectionism in recent months, a message he is expected to repeat in Trinidad and which is welcome news to other governments.  Jamaica's ambassador to the OAS, Anthony Johnson, says countries may be tempted to erect trade barriers during tough economic times, but this is a mistake.

"If we go into a protectionist downward spiral, we are lost," Johnson said.

Whereas the G20 summit in London earlier this month kept its focus on global financial and economic matters, discussions at the Summit of the Americas could be sidetracked by advocacy on behalf of a nation not present at the gathering: Cuba.

Economic embargo irritates some

The decades-old U.S. economic embargo of the communist-run island has long-irritated other nations in the Americas, including many close U.S. allies.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has decried Cuba's exclusion from the summit, prompting this response from Jeffrey Davidow.

"It [the summit] continues to be a celebration of the profound change in this hemisphere as compared to many periods in the past when the hemisphere was marked by undemocratic governments.  Cuba was not at the first summit; it remains an undemocratic state.  The United States still hopes to see change in Cuba," he said.

Will Obama take new approach?

But the Obama administration appears sensitive to hemispheric frustration over nearly 50 years of diplomatic and economic estrangement between Washington and Havana.  Earlier this week, the United States relaxed bans on travel and remittances to the island by Cuban-Americans.

During last year's presidential campaign, Barack Obama expressed a willingness to meet leaders of nations with which the United States has no official diplomatic relations, including Cuban President Raul Castro.

U.S. officials note that summit talks will be open, and any leader may raise issues about Cuba or any other topic. But they add it would be unfortunate if Cuba came to dominate discussions at a time of economic peril for the entire hemisphere.

Obama in high demand

Many leaders at the summit will be meeting President Obama for the first time.  The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, says the U.S. leader will be in great demand.

"Everybody expects to see the president [Obama].  And they do not expect just to shake hands with him.  They [all] expect to have 10 or 15 minutes with the president, which is a logistical problem," he said.

White House officials say President Obama met with five hemispheric leaders at the G-20 summit. 

Better approval ratings

Public-opinion polls in Latin America show far higher approval ratings for President Obama than those of his predecessor, George W. Bush.  With that popularity comes opportunity, according to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva.

"President Obama has a historic opportunity to improve the [U.S.] relationship with Latin America," he said.

The consensus view in the Americas is the United States turned its gaze away from hemispheric concerns after the attacks of September 11, 2001, focusing instead on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the global war on terror.  Observers say the upcoming four-day trip, which begins with an overnight stay Thursday in Mexico, will give Mr. Obama a chance to change that perception.