Obama’s overture to Latin America

President Obama's desire to forge a new relationship with some of the U.S.’s harshest critics received a warm response from Latin American leaders.

What happened

President Obama offered this week to forge a new relationship with some of the U.S.’s harshest critics, concluding his first Latin American summit by calling for an end to “the old ideologies that have dominated and distorted the debate in this hemisphere.” Obama received a warm response from Latin American leaders, in stark contrast with the antagonism frequently expressed toward George W. Bush. After being photographed sharing a smile with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Obama brushed off criticism from Republican leaders that his friendliness toward leftist leaders was “irresponsible,” saying that a willingness to talk was not weakness. “It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chávez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States,” Obama said.

At the summit, Chávez announced that he wanted to restore diplomatic ties with the U.S. “It’s time to have a true start of a new history,” said Chávez, who expelled the U.S. ambassador last year, prompting a tit-for-tat reprisal. U.S. officials welcomed the overture, but said building trust would require more than “a smile and a handshake.” Obama attended meetings on issues ranging from drug trafficking to climate change, mostly listening and taking notes. He also sat without comment through a 50-minute harangue about U.S. oppression from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and listened to repeated condemnations of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

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What the editorials said

Finally, we have a president who understands the importance of Latin America to U.S. interests, said The Dallas Morning News. Ignoring and threatening left-leaning nations in the Americas has produced no benefits, and “Latin American and Caribbean nations are mostly delighted with the prospects of renewed U.S. attention.”

But as Ortega demonstrated, anti-Americanism is still “deeply ingrained in the continent’s psyche,” said USA Today. Even as Chávez made friendly noises, he couldn’t resist presenting Obama with a book chronicling centuries of “Yankee imperialism.” That’s why it’s so important for Obama to reboot Latin America policy. Transforming the U.S.’s image will rob “repressive and corrupt” governments of their perennial excuse for their own failures.

What the columnists said

If Obama’s goal “was to be better liked by the region’s dictators and left-wing populists,” said Mary Anastasia O’Grady in The Wall Street Journal, “the White House can chalk up a win.” How could these petty thugs not like a target who just sits there grinning while they insult the Yankee oppressors? In the past decade, the socialist virus has spread throughout Latin America, and Cuba’s and Venezuela’s oppression of dissidents is tolerated and excused by Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Brazil. “As leader of the free world,” Obama should have spoken up for the millions of Latin Americans living under tyranny. Instead he called for friendly discussion, “a strategy that will offend no one and accomplish nothing.”

Obama is right to open the door, but he made a mistake in silently accepting insults, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. When Chávez gave Obama that book, Obama should have “telegraphed clearly, through posture, expression, and language, that he was not amused.” Similarly, after Ortega went on his anti-American tirade, “a flash of presidential anger from Obama would have been in order.” We can’t begin anew with Latin America if its despots think they can insult the president to his face.

The linchpin of any change in Latin America is still Cuba, said Jorge G. Casteñeda in The Wall Street Journal. And therein lies a great opportunity for Obama to promote human rights and democracy throughout the region. The U.S. should now offer to lift the embargo on Cuba if Latin American leaders agree to press Cuba on human rights and democratization. Cuba still might not budge, but “by shaming Latin leaders to stand up for their professed ideals, no one could pretend that the blame for the conflict still lies in the north.”

What next?

The pre-summit plan was for the participating nations to sign a blueprint for the socioeconomic development of the Americas, but there were too many disagreements and the document was not approved. With no future commitments, the White House is already signaling that “Obama’s attention will soon turn to other parts of the world,” said Andres Oppenheimer in The Miami Herald.

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