- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

PORT-OF-SPAIN, TRINIDAD (AP) - Latin American nations may be slipping into recession and the Caribbean’s tourism lifeblood may be drying up, but the region’s economic crisis has been overshadowed by the political developments at a summit of the hemisphere’s leaders.

Heads of state gathered in Trinidad and Tobago were well aware of predictions that another 15 million Latin Americans could fall into poverty this year in the absence of urgent action.

But while saying the economic crisis was important, they gushed more about how the United States drew closer to Cuba and a diplomatic push toward ending an icy relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela.

Presidents from Argentina to Central America beamed when they spoke about how much they like President Barack Obama. The warm reception for Obama’s pledge of a new partnership of mutual respect could ease Latin America’s long-standing us-versus-them relationship with Washington.

But little concrete progress was made on working toward ways to protect vulnerable economies from the world turmoil_ especially in Central America and the Caribbean, analysts say.

Among the few commitments made were a pledge by Obama to free up $100 million to help small entrepreneurs, and Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s announcement that the region’s finance ministers will meet in July in Chile to deal with the meltdown’s impact.

“There was nothing announced in terms of economics that was significant. It was all pretty symbolic,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “It was a missed opportunity because the region is facing tough times and negative growth this year, and this should have been on the top of the agenda.”

The only leader who criticized the lack of proposals to protect Latin America’s economic health was Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

His nation has been hard hit by a decrease in remittances sent home by migrants, lower prices for the oil that funds 40 percent of its budget and disappearing foreign investment.

Correa, a U.S.-trained economist, blasted “the lack of a discussion at the summit about the causes, consequences and alternatives” of the crisis and how to buffer the region from resurging poverty.

While Silva managed to get the regional meeting of finance ministers moved forward to July instead of a pre-planned 2010 date, analysts questioned why it wasn’t changed to May or June.

“Why don’t they meet now instead of waiting?” asked David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. “They are not taking it that seriously.”

The U.N. last month revised downward its projections for economic growth in Latin America this year, saying the region’s economy will shrink 0.3 percent.

Obama touted the promise of financial help from the International Monetary Fund, which has said it will triple its overall lending capacity. But no leader publicly discussed how much Latin America might get _ though it was recognized that Haiti and several Central America nations are in the most desperate straits.

Obama also said the U.S. was “urging” the Inter-American Development Bank, the region’s principal non-private lender, to boost loans to Latin America and the Caribbean.

But his own treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, would not commit to providing the bank with new funds when he attended its annual meeting in Colombia on March 30.

It was never considered to have Obama announce a sweeping Latin American aid package, his aides said before the summit.

“That’s the wrong approach and it’s one that has been discarded,” said Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who helped Obama organize Washington’s participation in the Trinidad and Tobago gathering.

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