Summit Shows that U.S.-Latin American Relations Need Giant Leap

by Teo Ballvé

The Progressive, Op-Ed, Apr 23, 2009

President Obama’s recent meeting with Latin American heads of state marked a positive step, but he needs to make bigger ones to repair our relations.

At the opening plenary of the fifth Summit of the Americas, held over the weekend in Trinidad and Tobago, Obama told regional leaders, “I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations.”

The statement received enthusiastic applause. And between meetings, Obama was kept busy shaking hands and smiling with leaders who jockeyed for photo-ops with the president.

The contrasts with the last summit, held in 2005, could not have been starker. President Bush’s reception at that meeting was so hostile that he was forced to leave a day early.

Obama distanced himself from his predecessor, who was the most unpopular U.S. president ever in Latin America. “I didn’t come here to debate the past,” he said. “I came here to deal with the future.”

But the past weighed heavily on the event.

Obama, who had never set foot in Latin America before the trip, patiently heard speeches by several leaders who reviewed Washington’s meddlesome history in the region.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez punctuated this by handing Obama the book, “The Open Veins of Latin America,” a poetic overview of five centuries of intervention in the region by Europe and the United States.

Washington’s backward policy toward Cuba was also a common subject. In her plenary speech, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner called the 47-year-old U.S. embargo a Cold War “anachronism.” She cast U.S. attempts to isolate Cuba as part of the region’s “decades-long traumatic relationship” with Washington.

The summit did produce one major breakthrough: A tentative U.S. rapprochement with Venezuela. Chavez approached Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines and they agreed on working toward re-establishing their countries’ respective ambassadors.

Distrust of Washington still runs deep in Latin America. And getting hemispheric relations all the way out of the abysmal hole dug by the Bush administration will require bolder steps by the Obama administration.

One would be to lift the embargo on Cuba.

Another would be to leave behind the Bush-era obsessions of free trade and militarization and instead embrace the regional leaders’ main priority: alleviating poverty.

In his final appearance, Obama suggested he might just do that. “We recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways,” he said.

If he follows through on such statements, Obama will be well on his way to building a genuine “equal partnership” for the hemisphere.

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