PANAMA CITY — President Barack Obama sought to reassert U.S. influence in the Caribbean and the Americas with pledges of energy assistance and diplomatic fence mending Thursday, a mix of modest steps and high ambition for a region struggling with economic and political stresses.
Obama flew to Panama City for a summit of Western Hemisphere nations and a potentially historic encounter with Cuban President Raul Castro. He arrived after spending less than 24 hours in Kingston, Jamaica, where he met with Caribbean leaders and spoke at a town hall of young leaders.
Obama's attendance at the summit and his stop in Kingston come after a year of increased attention to the region by signing executive orders on immigration, seeking to slow the influx of Central American minors to the U.S. border, tussling with Venezuela over human rights and initiating a historic diplomatic opening with Cuba.
But Obama's efforts are limited, with his most ambitious ones facing potential obstacles from the Republican-controlled Congress and his most recent immigration initiative stalled by court order. A $1 billion spending initiative aimed at Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador's economic and crime troubles, for instance, requires congressional approval.
Still, punishing electricity costs that are as much as five times more expensive than prices on the U.S. mainland and a lack of energy security have long been major concerns in the scattered islands of the Caribbean. The sun-splashed, wind-swept region derives nearly all of its electricity from plants that burn imported oil and diesel.
Obama on Thursday announced a $20 million effort to help jump start private and public sector investment in clean energy projects in the Caribbean and Central America.
"If we can lower those costs through the development of clean energy and increased energy efficiency we could unleash, I think, a whole host of additional investment and growth," Obama said.
Energy security on the import-dependent Jamaica is a growing concern with the wobbly economy of oil-dependent Venezuela, where the Petrocaribe trade program created by the late President Hugo Chavez has kept Jamaica and much of the region dependent on the South American country for energy.
While in Panama, Obama planned to meet with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and other Central American leaders.
Attention at the summit will also focus on any interaction between Obama and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The U.S. has objected to the Maduro government's imprisonment of dissidents and has slapped sanctions against seven Venezuelans it accuses of human rights violations. Maduro and his regional allies have characterized the sanctions as acts of U.S. aggression.
Obama sought to tone down the confrontation with Venezuela in a written interview with EFE News before he arrived in Panama.
"We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government," Obama said, although he added that the U.S. remains "very troubled" by intimidation of political opponents and erosion of human rights in Venezuela.
During his town hall meeting in Jamaica, the president highlighted a modest new initiative to support young leaders and entrepreneurs from the Caribbean and Central America, and professed a natural affinity for the island nation.
"I just like the vibe here," Obama said. "I was born on an island and it was warm, and so I feel right at home." He promised to come back for some island-hopping once he's out of office.