Assessing Obama's Repair Job in Latin America

Starting with an easing of the Cuban embargo, the president tried to win over skeptical leaders.

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You could call it Latin America week for President Obama—a week of modifying a hard-line approach on Cuba, embracing a Mexican government beset by drug violence, and launching a U.S. effort to reach out to nations of the Western Hemisphere that contend they haven't gotten much attention or respect while Washington has grown preoccupied with the Middle East and terrorism.

And by Sunday, when Obama finished his meetings with Latin American leaders in Trinidad and Tobago, it appeared that he had made some initial inroads—even among the region's leftist, anti-U.S. populists—in moving beyond the discontent with U.S. policy over the past few years. Obama declared a U.S. approach of "mutual respect" and "equal partnership" with the region. He strode across a room to shake hands with Hugo Chavez, the fiery leader of Venezuela, who told Obama, "I want to be your friend."

Obama started last week with his aides announcing that the administration would strip away restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, then flew to Mexico City to throw some high-profile support behind President Felipe Calderón and his campaign against drug cartels.

The next stop was Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, for the 34-nation Summit of the Americas. Administration officials have been laying the groundwork for a large repair job on relations with the rest of the hemisphere. The aim is to show a humbler, more receptive face of U.S. policy after a Bush presidency that saw Latin American feelings toward the colossus of the north turn chilly, leftist-populist politicians rise, and U.S. influence decline. Obama declared himself to be mostly in a listening mode as he met with many of the Latin leaders in Port of Spain. He had set the tone in Mexico City, praising Mexico for its "global leadership" and saying that "it's critical that we join together around issues that can't be solved by any one nation."

Obama's message on both stops was that he has set in motion an economic recovery that should help lift all boats in the hemisphere. Latin American officials are worried that if the U.S. economy does not regain momentum soon, a vast, underdeveloped region could also lose years of potential growth.

Latin leaders also wanted assurance that their region will not slip off Washington's radar screen again as Obama contends with security problems in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Jeffrey Davidow, Obama's top adviser on the summit, conceded beforehand that perceptions are that "in recent years the United States has turned its attention elsewhere, has neglected its relationships in this part of the world."

The Trinidad summit also put Obama in the same room as leaders from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua who have scorned U.S. policy and, in a few cases, demanded the departure of some U.S. diplomats. It was a recipe for some colorful political theater. Without citing names, Davidow observed recently that "flamboyant actors in Latin America will flamboy."

As it turned out, the region's left-leaning leaders did make tough remarks about U.S. policy, but Obama's outreach bid seemed to lower the temperature considerably. After Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, the longtime Sandinista chief on his second run as president, ticked off a litany of claimed U.S. misdeeds over the decades, Obama thanked Ortega for not blaming him for actions when Obama was 3½ months old, drawing laughter from the audience.

Obama last week also underscored U.S. efforts to coordinate and expand international counternarcotics programs. In the Mexican capital, where sensitivities over U.S. influence always run high, he avoided past American hectoring over drug flows that has sidestepped the fact that most of the demand—and 90 percent of the guns used in the killings in Mexico—come from the United States.

Last week's U.S. announcement on Cuba, which includes allowing U.S. telecommunication firms to provide cellphone, TV, and radio services there, was also aimed at the broader Latin American audience. Washington's continuing economic embargo on the Communist nation is deeply unpopular in the hemisphere, and demands for the United States to ease up on Cuba are rising. Obama predictably got an earful about the embargo and travel ban during the summit.