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As President Obama was making his way to the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last week, many hoped for something more concrete than just a fresh start with our neighbors in Latin America, who felt neglected and ignored for the past eight years. Those of us hoping that the president might take the opportunity to announce plans to seek congressional approval for two trade agreements that have been pending for two years or more--with Panama and Colombia--were disappointed. Most Washington observers knew that trade policy was likely to be on the back burner this year as the President and Congress grapple with the economic crisis. But the failure to give any hint as to when these agreements might move forward suggests that a forward-looking trade policy has been buried in the freezer for now.
The only tangible step that President Obama made to signal his hopes for a fresh start in the region was the easing of sanctions against Cuba, to allow family members to visit more often and to send remittances to relatives there. This is a welcome and long overdue first step toward normalizing relations with Cuba. The U.S. sanctions have been in place for almost five decades and for nearly two since the end of the Cold War that supposedly motivated them. For many years now the sanctions policy has isolated the United States in the international community more than it has Cuba. It is not true that sanctions "never work," but it is true that sanctions imposed unilaterally since 1970 by the U.S. policymakers seldom achieved U.S. foreign policy goals. Cuba is a prime example of a unilateral sanctions policy that long ago outlived its usefulness.