How Did Obama Do in Latin America?





Dr. McPherson is associate professor of international relations and ConocoPhillips Chair in Latin American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Yankee No! Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations (Harvard).

President Obama announced that he did not attend last weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Trinidad to talk about the past but “to deal with the future.” Yet the past was all around him, and he made remarkable use of it. “We must learn from history. But we can’t be trapped by it,” he said.

In the hands of a lesser statesman, that statement would be pap. But Obama met with the other leaders of the hemisphere (minus Cuba) intent on changing the tone of inter-American relations so as to one day change its substance. The effort produced a stirring shift in rhetoric equaled only by those of John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt.

The rhetorical challenge was essentially emotional: to replace fear with trust. Some leaders reminded Obama of the fear they have of the U.S. “empire.” Hugo Chávez of Venezuela gave the president Eduardo Galeano’s The Open of Latin America, a classic (but dated, from 1971) indictment of European and U.S. exploitation of the continent. Evo Morales of Bolivia used the word “conspiracy” at least three times and referred to a possible U.S.-led assassination plot against him for which he had no evidence.

Obama responded with the right mix of humility and confidence. He presented himself as a student of inter-American affairs, willing to “listen” and be open to a “frank dialogue.” “I have a lot to learn and I’m very much looking forward to listening.” And he did learn, for instance, that Cuba’s medical missions abroad had been tremendous propaganda dividends for the island and that Washington should encourage similar aid. He also expressed contrition: “We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms.”

At the same time, Obama avoided the “trap” of taking responsibility for the hemisphere’s problems. “That also means we can’t blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere,” he said. “That’s part of the bargain. That’s the old way, and we need a new way.” Obama was able to make light of the past when it seemed appropriate. A speech by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega was mired in past recriminations—going all the way back to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion—yet he said he did not hold Obama to account for it. Obama’s response: “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.” He drew laughter and applause.

Stephen Harper noted that the balancing act worked: Obama’s “clear desire to listen—not necessarily to agree but to listen—has won him a lot of friends,” said the Canadian prime minister.

Also summing up the new attitude was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Let’s put ideology aside; that is so yesterday.”

Obama’s style may be lifting what we might call the Caracas syndrome—the dread, since the 1958 attack on Vice President Richard Nixon in Venezuela, that US representatives will be targets of anti-U.S. riots. Notable was the president’s stop in Mexico the day before the Summit, where he stayed in chaotic, loud Mexico City and not the typical out-of-the way beach resort or ranch. The result? No riots, no protests, nada.

Elsewhere, Obama’s diplomacy has been a smash with Latin Americans. He is by far the most popular leader there: a poll released last Thursday showed approval ratings of 70 percent, higher that those of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who usually holds the lead, at 59 percent. (Bush was traditionally near the bottom, along with Chávez, Ortega, and Fidel Castro.)

Leaders at the summit mirrored that approval. Patrick Manning, the Trinidadian host, crowed that “There was a spirit of good will that went way beyond the wildest dreams of any one of us.” Even Chávez was gracious: he shook hands with the president, patted his back, and called him “an intelligent man, compared to the previous U.S. President.” He said he felt “great optimism and the best of good will to advance. We have started off on the right foot.”

Rhetoric was just a start, to be sure, and Obama again conveyed that truth. “I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking,” he said. “The test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds.” And deeds did follow. By the end of the summit, Chávez had nominated a new ambassador to Washington to replace the one ousted after an ugly spat between Bush and Bolivia. Obama, meanwhile, got the Inter-American Development Bank strengthened. And the most concrete, long-lasting change will probably be a more open policy toward Cuba, perhaps even an end to the embargo during Obama’s first mandate.

But even if no concrete changes occur, symbolism matters. New words, new gestures, and new attitudes help lift the cloud of mistrust and anger and usher in an era of openness and optimism.

Such a shift can only be good for the United States. There is nothing to fear from Venezuela or Cuba but much to be gained, as the president said. On Cuba, he was focused on “what’s right in terms of American interests. And on this one, I think I’m right.”

Yes, he is.


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