KINGSTON, Jamaica — President Barack Obama opened a three-day trip to the Caribbean and Central America on Thursday, hoping to make inroads in the face of expanding Chinese influence and weakening power by Venezuela, once the energy juggernaut of the Americas.
Obama's arrival Wednesday evening in Kingston, Jamaica, was low-key compared to the excitement he stirred in the Caribbean upon his election in 2008. Greeted at the airport tarmac by dignitaries including Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, Obama slipped into a motorcade that ran through mostly quiet, empty streets.
The visit comes amid a perception that Obama's interest in the region has failed to materialize. Yet his travels — first to Jamaica, then to the Summit of the Americas in Panama — follow a year of increased attention to the region by the U.S. president. His immigration executive orders, his efforts to slow the influx of Central American minors to the U.S. border, and his diplomatic outreach to Cuba have put a foreign policy spotlight on U.S. neighbors to the south.
Obama met Thursday with Simpson Miller and he'll also meet with other leaders in the 15-member Caribbean Community. He plans to speak to young regional leaders in a town-hall setting, continuing a tradition of engaging new generations in foreign political and civil society institutions.
The president promptly paid tribute to the island's cultural hero, the late reggae star Bob Marley, making an unannounced visit Wednesday night to the legendary singer's museum. He toured Marley's former home as Marley's hit "One Love" played through the building's sound system.
In the Caribbean, energy security tops Obama's agenda as the U.S. seeks to fill a potential void left by Venezuela's scaled-back oil diplomacy. Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden hosted prime ministers and other top officials from all Caribbean countries except Cuba at the first Caribbean Energy Security Summit in Washington.
In a written interview with EFE News before his arrival in Panama, Obama downplayed efforts by many countries get out from the U.S. orbit through regional alliances or economic links to China.
"The new chapter of engagement that we've begun with Cuba has been welcomed across the region and is an historic opportunity to also advance regional cooperation and progress," he said. "The United States is leading the international effort to support Caribbean nations as they secure their energy future."
He also continued his administration's efforts to soften the impact of his announced sanctions against seven Venezuelans in protest of President Nicolas Maduro's crackdown on political opponents. Maduro has characterized the sanctions as a direct aggression against Venezuela.
"We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government. But we do remain very troubled by the Venezuelan government's efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents, including the arrest and prosecution of elected officials on political charges, and the continued erosion of human rights, as we would be troubled by such developments in any other country in the world."
China has steadily expanded its economic alliances in the Caribbean, providing much of the financing for new roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.
"China is running away with the gold in the view of many region watchers. Its footprint is visible and obvious through its 'checkbook' diplomacy in the Caribbean," said Anthony Bryan, an international relations professor at Trinidad's campus of the University of the West Indies. The public university system serves 18 English-speaking countries and territories.
Obama's visit to Jamaica is the first by a U.S. president since President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Obama was last in the Caribbean in 2009 when he attended the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. His stop in Kingston comes ahead of his attendance at this year's summit of the Western Hemisphere's heads of government Friday and Saturday in Panama.