Temperate Zone: Obama & Latin America

By White, Robert E. | Commonweal, May 22, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Temperate Zone: Obama & Latin America


White, Robert E., Commonweal


At the Fifth Summit of the Americas last month, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela seemed to be everywhere. The New York Times illustrated its story on the meeting with a front-page photograph of Chavez in smiling, relaxed conversation with President Barack Obama. Despite an exchange of insults in the weeks before the summit, both leaders appeared to be enjoying one another's company. During the official lunch, Chavez presented Obama with a book by Uruguayan author and journalist Eduardo Galeano. That made big news in Latin America, where Galeano is a populist hero, famed for his epigrams, many of them critical of the United States.

The summit took place in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, and Obama seemed predestined for success. Over the past eight years, Latin American leaders had grown weary of President George W. Bush's endless repetitions of the Washington Consensus: unfettered capitalism, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and absolute free trade. To most of the hemisphere's democratic leaders, the Washington Consensus had come to represent a moribund, corrupt alliance of bankers, businessmen, politicians, and bureaucrats bent on enriching themselves. It had undermined people's faith in democratic government, and concentrated political and economic power in the hands of a few, making Latin America a byword for economic inequality.

In contrast, Obama's performance radiated grace, style, and intelligence. He sat through all the deliberations, listening attentively to friends and adversaries alike. When it was his turn to speak, he outlined a new vision of a Western Hemisphere of equal partners, and did so with elegant oratory--an art form highly valued by Latin American politicians. Only once did he show frustration. Following a long, rude, and pointless harangue by Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, he responded by thanking Ortega for not blaming him personally for things that happened "when I was four years old," and then repeated his own intention to launch a new chapter in hemispheric relations, calling for "a new partnership, with no senior or junior partners, working together for shared prosperity." He had come to the summit, he said, not to debate the past but to talk about the future. (When asked later what he thought of Ortega's speech, he replied: "It was fifty minutes long. That's what I thought.")

Obama infused the summit with a sense of cordiality and common purpose that had disappeared from inter-American relations for decades. So persuasive was he that many Latino commentators predict an entirely new era in Washington's dealings with Latin America. But style is one thing, substance another. For a change, this summit's discussions focused on energy security, environmental sustainability, and human prosperity rather than on old disputes. Still, Obama's model for a new cooperative effort went largely undefined.

To many at the summit, Obama's talk of "Equal Partners" echoed Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. At the heart of that initiative was the doctrine of nonintervention, and the right of each member state to sovereignty and national territorial integrity. Yet every nation bordering the Caribbean has its own story to tell about U.S. interference in its internal affairs. The most flagrant example is Washington's ongoing treatment of Cuba. The U.S. embargo of Havana was not on the summit's agenda, nor, at U.S. insistence, had Cuba been invited to the meeting. But the Castros--Fidel and Raul--seemed to be unseen guests at every gathering, an uninvited duo to whom many presidents addressed their remarks. For weeks leading up to the summit, speculation focused on how it might fall apart over Latin Americans' determination to re-admit Cuba to the Organization of American States (OAS), the hundred-year-old hemispheric association that expelled Cuba in 1962. Obama's timely decision before the summit to relax U.S. restrictions on visas for Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island allowed the United States to head off a threatened breakdown at the summit.

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