* Cuba issue could dominate 34-nation hemispheric summit
* White House adviser says Cuba “odd man out” in region
* Obama faces chorus of calls to end U.S. embargo on Cuba
By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI, April 9 (Reuters) - The United States, facing a clamor of calls to normalize ties with Cuba, does not want the prickly Cuban issue to dominate a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders next week, a senior U.S. diplomat said on Thursday.
A string of leaders from South America to the Caribbean have made clear they will use the April 17-19 Summit of the Americas to lobby President Barack Obama to end the longstanding U.S. embargo against the communist-ruled island.
Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, White House adviser for the summit, said the gathering in Trinidad and Tobago was an opportunity for the new U.S. president to engage and work with the region on strategic issues like tackling the economic crisis, energy solutions and common security threats.
“I would think it would be unfortunate to lose the opportunity for this hemisphere ... by getting distracted by the Cuban issue,” Davidow said at a conference in Washington looking ahead to next week’s summit which will bring together Obama and more than 30 other heads of state and government.
Obama, who took office in January, has promised to ease the 47-year U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and seek talks with its leaders. U.S. officials make clear the embargo will not be entirely lifted, to keep up pressure for reforms in Cuba.
Cuba, which was suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1962 because of Havana’s alignment with what was then the communist bloc led by the Soviet Union, will not be participating in the Trinidad meeting.
Davidow acknowledged the “highly contentious” Cuba question was likely to “come up in some way” at the summit, even if it was not on the formal agenda.
But, signaling limits to any U.S. policy change and in a pointed counter to worldwide opposition to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, expressed annually at the United Nations, the U.S. diplomat called Cuba the “odd man out” in the hemisphere.
“Keep in mind that this meeting in Trinidad is a meeting of 34 democratic states,” Davidow said, restating Washington’s objections to Cuba’s one-party communist system.
In recent weeks, regional leaders ranging from the summit host, Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning, to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have loudly proclaimed their condemnation of what they term an “obsolete” U.S. isolationist policy toward Cuba.
While sharing this view, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said this week that Cuba’s return to the hemispheric group would not however be resolved at the Trinidad summit.
Analysts said many of Obama’s peers in the hemisphere could view his response on the Cuba issue as a test of how serious he might be in announcing a new, more collaborative relationship with Latin America, which opposes the embargo with one voice.
“Latin America — now more confident, more empowered — has jacked Cuba up to emblematic status,” said Robert Muse, an attorney and Cuba expert who has testified on legal issues involving Cuba before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The leaders are saying to Obama: ‘if you are serious, then do something real about Cuba,’” Muse added.
The administration of Obama, a Democrat who succeeded Republican George W. Bush, is widely expected to announce soon an easing of restrictions on travel and remittance transfers by Cuban Americans to the island.
Urging the summit participants to maintain a united commitment to democracy and human rights, Davidow said “there is not one government represented ... whose population would willingly accept the kind of restrictions on their civil and political and human rights that are commonplace in Cuba.”
Two U.S. lawmakers said on Thursday that Obama should insist that Cuba release all political detainees before the United States moves to relax trade and travel curbs. They criticized fellow lawmakers who recently visited Cuba, saying they failed to publicly focus on human rights. [ID:nN09528783]
Bills are pending in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress that would eliminate a ban on Americans visiting Cuba, and many analysts believe the current momentum to improve U.S.-Cuban ties is unstoppable.
“I believe the worm has turned. This is the beginning of the end of the worst, least successful foreign policy experiment in the history of the United States,” said David Rothkopf, president and CEO of Garten Rothkopf consultancy.
He appeared with Davidow at the conference hosted by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. (Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Frances Kerry)