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President Barack Obama attended the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this past weekend along with 33 other democratically elected heads of state and government in the Western Hemisphere.

In Obama’s first meeting with his regional counterparts he used the opportunity to engage in a new relationship with countries of the Americas and to forge partnerships and join approaches to work on the common challenges facing the people of the Americas, including the economic crisis, energy, climate future and public safety. The theme of the Summit was “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security, and Environmental Sustainability.”

President Obama struck a new tone with leaders who were used to the tone and rhetoric of George W. Bush.  Obama said, “While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership.”

In addition, he expressed support for a more central U.S. place in global alliances, including a firm endorsement of the United Nations saying, “We do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example.”

Regarding Cuba, Obama said it is time for a new phase in U.S. policy, “The policy that we’ve had in place for 50 years hasn’t worked the way we want it to. The Cuban people are not free.”

On Friday, Raúl Castro responded saying he was willing to discuss all issues including human rights issues with the United States.

Obama was also criticized for greeting leftist Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. However, the president has defended this as a gesture of diplomatic courtesy.

In a news conference at the end of the Summit, Obama agreed to focus on the following issues:

Social Inclusion and Economic Development

In recent years, the Western Hemisphere has made significant progress in social inclusion, the reduction of poverty, and democratic governance.  Still, much more needs to be done and President Obama committed to work jointly to protect these advances in a period of economic crisis

· Economic Recovery:  President Obama led efforts to triple the size of a reformed International Monetary Fund from $250 billion to $750 billion which will have significant impact on emerging markets in the region.  The United States also supported expanding the Inter-American Development Bank’s short term crisis response through changes in lending limits and capital ratios.

·   Microfinance Growth Fund for the Western Hemisphere:  The President announced a new partnership of the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC) for the purpose of launching a fund that will provide stable sources of finance to microfinance institutions and microfinance investment vehicles to help rebuild their capacity to lend during this difficult period and to increase the supply of finance for micro and small businesses as recovery takes hold.  The partners have identified $100 million in initial capital and will look for additional partners with the ultimate goal of $250 million.

·        Social Protection Network:  President Obama announced his support for the Inter-American Social Protection Network, which will share best practices including the development of new conditional cash transfer programs.  The President also announced that 1,500 students from marginalized groups would receive scholarships to learn English, and 1,300 students would receive scholarships over five years through the Scholarships for Education and Economic Development (SEED) program to study in the United States.

·        Education Partnerships for At-Risk Youth.  The President proposed a pilot program to form partnerships with countries that have the highest levels of inequality, significant numbers of unemployed and at-risk youth, and considerable potential for leveraging additional public and private sector resources.  This program would add a focus on youth at risk such as out of school youth, under-employed youth, and ex-gang members.

Energy and Climate Change

Approximately 50 percent of U.S. oil imports come from the Western Hemisphere.  By increasing green energy cooperation, we will set our economies on a clean energy growth path and curb global greenhouse gas emissions.

·        Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas:  President Obama invited countries of the region to participate in an Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas; a voluntary and flexible framework for advancing energy security and combating climate change.  Countries will be encouraged to suggest tangible ideas for cooperation, including on energy efficiency, renewable energy, cleaner fossil fuels, and energy infrastructure.  President Obama also asked Secretary of Energy Chu to advance further cooperation with his counterparts this June in Peru at the Americas Energy Symposium.

·        Global Climate Change:  President Obama expressed his commitment to working with his regional counterparts toward a strong international climate agreement at Copenhagen.  He will also work closely with Brazil, Canada, and Mexico through the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate.

Citizen Safety

Public safety and crime are among the top concerns of citizens throughout the region.  President Obama emphasized the need for partnerships that address this issue, focusing on our co-responsibility to address threats to public safety.

·        Firearms Trafficking:  The United States must do more to reduce the number of illegal firearms which flow to Latin America and the Caribbean.  President Obama announced his commitment to seek ratification of the Convention on Illicit Trafficking in Firearms Convention (CIFTA) in 2009, and offering technical assistance to trace illicit firearms and control, store, or destroy excess national stockpiles.

·        Caribbean Basin Security Dialogue:  President Obama announced that he would engage the Caribbean Community member states and the Dominican Republic in a strategic security dialogue with the intent of developing a joint security strategy, which may include future increased financial and technical assistance to address shared challenges such as transnational crime, illicit trafficking, and maritime and aviation security.  The next meeting between the Caribbean Community and Common Market and the United States is scheduled to take place in May in Suriname.

·        Enhance Public Security Cooperation:  President Obama has asked the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security to meet with all of their counterparts in the hemisphere to address violent crime in our communities.

Los Angeles Times

Washington Post

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The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) was the first to learn about President Barack Obama’s trip to Mexico, and three key members of the caucus are currently traveling with him to the Summit of the Americas. Members include Congressman Nydia Velazquez, Chair of the CHC, Congressman Xavier Becerra, vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and Congressman Ciro D. Rodriguez, Chair of the Agriculture and Rural Community Task Force.

Congressman Velazquez (NY-12) said “There are important conversations to be had regarding immigration reform, border security and trade relations with our closest neighbors. We look forward to taking part in those exchanges, and representing the views of our constituents and Latinos across the nation.”

In other news, the CHC is responding to statements from several organizations urging some immigrants to boycott the 2010 Census. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, a group on behalf of 20,000 evangelical churches in 34 states, issued a statement this week urging undocumented immigrants not to fill out Census forms unless Congress passes “genuine immigration reform”.

Other grass-roots campaigns in Arizona and New Mexico are protesting state and local crackdowns on illegal immigrants. Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the Latino Religious Coalition says, “Asking immigrants to be counted without giving them a chance to become legal residents counters church teachings.”

Rivera continues, “When the Census counts growing numbers of Hispanics; the counts are often used to support crackdowns on illegal immigrants. About 38% of the churches’ 3.4 million members are undocumented.”

Contrary to what these groups believe, the Census Bureau does not ask people if they are here illegally.

Congressman Charles A. Gonzalez, 1st Vice Chair of the CHC and Chair of the group’s Civil Rights, Veterans and Worker Protections Task Force, said “There’s no doubt about it, the Hispanic community must stand together and be counted in the 2010 census. Boycott groups are uniting and bringing attention to the important issue of immigration reform, though well intentioned, their efforts are failing to take into account the long-term implications of their actions. 2010 census numbers will affect the daily lives of all Hispanics throughout the next ten years; we must not let this important opportunity for representation pass us by.”

“It is vital for all people, especially minorities, to be counted. Census numbers help decide the number of U.S. House members each state is entitled to have and provide the private sector with necessary data to make business investments in specific communities, both of which, will have a dramatic impact on our nations future. The Obama administration continues to move forward on immigration reform and we must have patience as we develop comprehensive solutions. It will continue to take time, but in the meanwhile we should encourage everyone to be counted in the 2010 Census.”

USA Today

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By: Carmen Peláez

On Thursday, President Barack Obama said it was up to Havana to take the next step after his gesture of removing some of the restrictions that have prohibited money and travel to Cuba. This morning, Raul Castro responded within hours, saying “we have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything – human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything.” Playwright and actress Carmen Peláez, born in Miami to Cuban parents, offers her comments on President Obama’s decision to promote democracy and human rights towards her parent’s homeland.

Fidel Castro and his cynical dictatorship has failed miserably in all but one regard: its ability to divide the Cuban people. Being a Cuban American, having traveled to the island and seen with my own eyes the havoc and the destruction this dictatorship has wreaked, I’m beyond hopeful about President Obama’s specific and thoughtful policy change towards Cuba.

Perhaps no current leader understands better than President Obama that change comes from within. I believe this new policy will create the perfect climate for transition. Not only will it reunite families but it will build countless bridges between people who have been sequestered from a modern world and those who have benefited from living in a democratic society. Cubans will finally be able to help themselves without bowing down to oppression. Those who challenge the establishement such as the Ladies in White, a group of women who silently protested their husband’s, brother’s and son’s arrests in the Cuban Black Spring and other dissidents such as Jorge Luis Garcia Perez Antunez, Yoani Sanchez, and Oswaldo Payá will be able to continue their peaceful and courageous struggle with the full support of the Cuban diaspora.

My people are resourceful, resilient, and creative. With an American president that rejects the false narrative dictated by the Castro regime, I am sure that this will be the first of many changes leading to a unified and democratic Cuba.

Carmen Peláez was born in Miami to Cuban parents. She is a playwright and actor currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carmen Peláez.

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Op-ed by President Barack Obama

 

As we approach the Summit of the Americas, our hemisphere is faced with a clear choice. We can overcome our shared challenges with a sense of common purpose, or we can stay mired in the old debates of the past. For the sake of all our people, we must choose the future.

Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities, and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas. My Administration is committed to the promise of a new day. We will renew and sustain a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security.

In advance of the Summit, we have begun to move in a new direction. This week, we amended a Cuba policy that has failed for decades to advance liberty or opportunity for the Cuban people. In particular, the refusal to allow Cuban Americans to visit or provide resources to their families on the island made no sense – particularly after years of economic hardship in Cuba, and the devastating hurricanes that took place last year. Now, that policy has changed.

The U.S.-Cuba relationship is one example of a debate in the Americas that is too often dragged back to the 20th century. To confront our economic crisis, we don’t need a debate about whether to have a rigid, state-run economy or unbridled and unregulated capitalism – we need pragmatic and responsible action that advances our common prosperity. To combat lawlessness and violence, we don’t need a debate about whether to blame right-wing paramilitaries or left-wing insurgents – we need practical cooperation to expand our common security.

We must choose the future over the past, because we know that the future holds enormous opportunities if we work together. That is why leaders from Santiago to Brasilia to Mexico City are focused on a renewed partnership of the Americas that makes progress on fundamental issues like economic recovery, energy, and security.

There is no time to lose. The global economic crisis has hit the Americas hard, particularly our most vulnerable populations. Years of progress in combating poverty and inequality hangs in the balance. The United States is working to advance prosperity in the hemisphere by jumpstarting our own recovery. In doing so, we will help spur trade, investment, remittances, and tourism that provides a broader base for prosperity in the hemisphere.

We also need collective action. At the recent G-20 Summit, the United States pledged to seek nearly half a billion dollars in immediate assistance for vulnerable populations, while working with our G-20 partners to set aside substantial resources to help countries through difficult times. We have called upon the Inter-American Development Bank to maximize lending to restart the flow of credit, and stand ready to examine the needs and capacity of the IDB going forward. And we are working to put in place tough, clear 21st century rules of the road to prevent the abuses that caused the current crisis.

While we confront this crisis, we must build a new foundation for long-term prosperity. One area that holds out enormous promise is energy. Our hemisphere has bountiful natural resources that could make renewable energy plentiful and sustainable, while creating jobs for our people. In the process, we can confront climate change that threatens rising sea levels in the Caribbean, diminishing glaciers in the Andes, and powerful storms on the Gulf Coast of the United States.

Together, we have both the responsibility to act, and the opportunity to leave behind a legacy of greater prosperity and security. That is why I look forward to pursuing a new Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas that will help us learn from one another, share technologies, leverage investment, and maximize our comparative advantage.

Just as we advance our common prosperity, we must advance our common security. Too many in our hemisphere are forced to live in fear. That is why the United States will strongly support respect for the rule of law, better law enforcement, and stronger judicial institutions.

Security for our citizens must be advanced through our commitment to partner with those who are courageously battling drug cartels, gangs and other criminal networks throughout the Americas. Our efforts start at home. By reducing demand for drugs and curtailing the illegal flow of weapons and bulk cash south across our border, we can advance security in the United States and beyond. And going forward, we will sustain a lasting dialogue in the hemisphere to ensure that we are building on best practices, adapting to new threats, and coordinating our efforts.

Finally, the Summit gives every democratically-elected leader in the Americas the opportunity to reaffirm our shared values. Each of our countries has pursued its own democratic journey, but we must be joined together in our commitment to liberty, equality, and human rights. That is why I look forward to the day when every country in the hemisphere can take its seat at the table consistent with the Inter-American Democratic Charter. And just as the United States seeks that goal in reaching out to the Cuban people, we expect all of our friends in the hemisphere to join together in supporting liberty, equality, and human rights for all Cubans.

This Summit offers the opportunity of a new beginning. Advancing prosperity, security and liberty for the people of the Americas depends upon 21st century partnerships, freed from the posturing of the past. That is the leadership and partnership that the United States stands ready to provide.

Miami Herald

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Today President Barack Obama heads to Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderón before traveling to Trinidad and Tobago for the fifth Summit of the Americas. Obama will be the first American president to visit the Mexican capital since Bill Clinton did 12 years ago.

The meeting’s top issue will be drug violence and how the two countries can work together to strengthen Calderon’s efforts to fight drug cartels. On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced financial sanctions against members of three more Mexican drug cartels, categorizing them as “kingpins” under a law that permits the American government to seize their assets. In addition, yesterday Alan Bersin was named “border czar” to deal with the problems along the U.S.-Mexico border.

America’s border with Mexico spans more than 3,000 kilometers and drug-fueled violence along that border is a growing problem. Drug-related killings in Mexico’s northernmost states doubled last year to about 6,000, amid bloody battles between cartels and security forces.

Obama and his aides have been working hard to create a Mexico policy that has “shared responsibility” in combating the drug problem. Similarly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the President is likely to acknowledge that Americans play a role in the illicit drug consumption and that weapons from the United States are finding ways to get into the drug traffickers’ hands.

Obama says, “We have got to reduce the demand for drugs. We have got to do our part in reducing the flow of cash and guns south [to Mexico].”

Also likely on the agenda will be immigration reform. Yesterday the Pew Hispanic Center released a report stating that Mexicans now account for 32 percent of all immigrants in the United States. It is estimated that one of every 10 living persons born in Mexico now lives in the United States.

The president has described himself as “a strong proponent of comprehensive immigration reform,” saying he has met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus “to try to shape an agenda that can move through Congress.”

Trade will also be a likely subject on the agenda. A pilot project allowing some Mexican trucks to make cross-border deliveries was recently suspended by U.S. Congress. An international arbitrator has ruled in Mexico’s favor, and Obama has acknowledged that the United States is in violation of its NAFTA obligations. Whether the issue will be resolved is unclear.

Voice of America

New York Times

NPR

UPI


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In yesterday’s shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba many Cuban-Americans are welcoming the measures made by President Barack Obama.  While the President, following through on his campaign promises of lifting all restrictions on travel and money transfers to the island by Cuban-Americans, is providing hope for many moderate and liberal Cuban-Americans  and is creating worry for conservative hardliners.

At ABC Charters owned by Maria Aral in Little Havana, Cuban-Americans were in line buying tickets to go see loved ones. Beatriz Mulet bought a ticket to go see her mom who is suffering from breast cancer. Mulet, whois delighted at policy changes said, “I voted for Obama. I thought that he was going to do it. I didn’t know it would be this fast.”

The new rules allow unlimited trips and expand whom you can visit – permitting trips not just to see close family members but also to see great aunts and second cousins. This was not allowed under President Bush.

Aral continues, “For us Cubans, cousins are as close as sisters, and under President Bush, my cousin was no longer my family. I couldn’t visit them.”

The changes outlined also allow U.S. companies to improve telephone and Internet service to the island nation – if able to reach agreements with the Cuban government.

The new rules don’t lift the U. S. trade embargo that has been in place for nearly 50 years. Nevertheless, they mark a significant change in the 78White House tone toward Cuba. White House officials refused to comment on future changes but said that now U.S. policy to Cuba is “not frozen in time.”

That’s also the case with South Florida’s Cuban-American population. Polls demonstrate that a majority of Cuban-Americans support lifting the travel and remittance restrictions-restrictions many once supported.

Travel agent Aral notes that second and third generation Cuban-Americans help account for the changing attitudes. However, just as important are new arrivals from Cuba. Currently there are 30,000 legal immigrants a year from Cuba.

Not all Cuban-Americans are delighted at the changes.  A significant number of conservative Cuban-Americans are uneasy about policies that weaken 50 years of hard-line opposition to the Castro regime. Republicans Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Cuban-American brothers who represent Miami in Congress, called Obama’s policy changes “a serious mistake.”

Influential radio commentator Ninoska Perez Castellon said Obama is extending a hand to Cuba while the Castro regime still has “a clinched fist.”

Perez said, “We feel it’s wrong to give this concession to the Cuba regime at a time when they have not shown any willingness to change. Cubans have no individual freedoms, prisons are full. So why grant this free ride to the Cuban regime at this point?”

The new rules currently only affect Cuban-Americans, but more changes in U.S. travel policy toward Cuba are possible. A bill currently being considered in Congress would lift the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.

NPR

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President Obama intends to nominate University of Michigan professor Robert M. Groves today to serve as the next Census director. The long-anticipated announcement was made after Commerce Secretary Gary Locke completes his first full week on the job.

If confirmed, Groves faces looming managerial and political concerns surrounding the 2010 Census. The bureau received $ 1 billion in stimulus funding to help prepare for the census and will devote up to $250 million for advertising and outreach programs to help increase participation levels among traditionally undercounted groups, mostly minorities in urban areas.

The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department and the director will report to an undersecretary who in turn reports to the commerce secretary.

Locke said Monday, “We’re going to make sure that the Census Bureau has the independent leadership it deserves and the professional oversight that Americans demand.”

The Secretary also stressed that personal information collected by the Census will remain confidential, a concern of several groups.

Groves has much survey experience, as he served as the bureau’s associate director from 1990 to 1992 and currently is director of the UM’s Survey Research Center. In his work he has researched why people participate in statistical surveys, worked to develop surveys with lower non-response errors and studied how data is collected for surveys.

According to a congressional aide familiar with the Census, Groves has  “bulletproof scientific credentials” and is “really highly regarded by his peers as a low-key, determined guy who’s been really focused on reducing error in survey research for his whole career.”

Groves is a former prison guard in Vermont, and earned his bachelor’s from Dartmouth College, and later a masters and P.h.D.  in sociology from the University of Michigan.

Detroit Free Press

Washington Post

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