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In Jamaica, Obama Announces Plan To Diversify Caribbean Energy


There's a lot going on ahead of the Summit of the Americas. It begins tomorrow in Panama. Cuba will be attending for the first time ever. Today President Obama said the State Department has completed its review of whether Cuba should be dropped from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. He didn't say what the recommendation is, but it's sure to be a focus of discussion at this weekend's summit.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government but we don't want to be imprisoned by the past. When something doesn't work for 50 years, you don't just keep on doing it - you try something new.

CORNISH: President Obama made those comments in Jamaica, where he stopped on his way to Panama. He spent the day meeting with Caribbean leaders and announced efforts to promote a cleaner, more diverse energy supply to the region. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama is mixing electric generation with electric guitars on this Jamaican trip. His first stop was a museum devoted to one of Jamaica's reggae legends.

OBAMA: A quick trip that I made last night to Bob Marley's house was one of the more fun meetings that I've had since I've been president. I was a big fan since I was in high school.

HORSLEY: This morning, Obama met with Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and stressed the bonds that tie the United States to this island nation of just under 3 million people. One way the U.S. hopes to strengthen those bonds is with energy.

OBAMA: People of the Caribbean, despite having less resources, are paying significantly higher prices for energy. And 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.

HORSLEY: Jamaica, like many countries in the Caribbean, is heavily dependent on imported oil from Venezuela to meet its energy needs, including electricity. For a decade, Venezuela has tried to win influence in this region by supplying that oil on very favorable terms. But with falling oil prices, Venezuela's economy is in deep trouble. And Jason Marczak of the Atlantic Council says that well may be running dry.

JASON MARCZAK: The situation in Venezuela has gone from bad to worse to even worse, economically, but also politically.

HORSLEY: Venezuelans are facing long lines in supermarkets and near 70 percent inflation. Marczak says that could have serious ripple effects in this area if oil deliveries to the Caribbean are cut off.

MARCZAK: Some of the countries don't have more than, you know, two weeks of reserves in oil. This is a real national security question for the United States as well because energy crisis in the Caribbean potentially can result in mass migration.

HORSLEY: The Obama administration is eager to prevent such a crisis and possibly win some goodwill for the United States by encouraging alternative sources of energy. Obama announced a new $20 million fund today designed to encourage private investment in clean energy.

OBAMA: I'm confident that given the commitment of the CARICOM countries and the U.S. commitment that this is an issue in which we can make great strides over the short term, and even greater strides over the long term.

HORSLEY: The president's meeting today follows a similar gathering in Washington hosted by Vice President Biden back in January. Harold Trinkunas, who directs the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution, says together, the meetings amount to a one-two punch for U.S. influence in the Caribbean.

HAROLD TRINKUNAS: This is a lot of focused attention in a region - part of the hemisphere that really doesn't get any attention from the United States.

HORSLEY: U.S. influence here and throughout the hemisphere is likely to be strengthened by the warming ties with Cuba, an issue that for years has isolated the United States. Jamaica's Prime Minister told Obama today his moves on Cuba had put him on the right side of history, but the president cautioned change won't happen overnight. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Kingston, Jamaica. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.