Mixed Feelings About Obama’s First Meeting with Hemispheric Leaders

Of all the memorable statements coming out of the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad this weekend, the one that stood out the most for me was President Barack Obama’s public expression of how he intended to approach his first major meeting with his hemispheric counterparts.

"I have a lot to learn and I’m very much looking forward to listening," the president said in his opening address. Of all the memorable statements coming out of the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad this weekend, the one that stood out the most for me was President Barack Obama’s public expression of how he intended to approach his first major meeting with his hemispheric counterparts.

"I have a lot to learn and I’m very much looking forward to listening," the president said in his opening address.

With those few words, Obama demonstrated, at least rhetorically, an openness that has never existed in Washington’s many dealings with the countries of the southern part of the hemisphere. Perhaps they were just words, a clever way for the smooth-talking Obama to warm up to his audience of skeptics, not only those Presidents and Prime Ministers present in Port of Spain, but their hundreds of millions of constituents back home – from the shanty towns of Rio, to the jungles of Chiapas, the highlands of Bolivia, to the dusty streets of Haiti – most of whom continue to cast a wary eye on the many decades of U.S. interventions and misdeeds, always in the name of “democracy,” “human rights,” and economic justice.

Although it is still too early to tell if his words were genuine, or if this is a true sign that U.S. policy vis a vis Latin America will undergo some necessary transformations, it is not a stretch to say that this weekend’s event was a step forward, not the usual several steps back.

In his 17-minute speech to the 34-nation gathering on Friday, President Obama promised a new agenda for the Americas, and emphasized what he described as a different way to approach the many problems facing the region.

"We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms," Obama told an enthusiastic audience. "But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations."

His careful, almost apologetic words, and his general demeanor – did you catch that friendly, over-the-top handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez? – reflected the comfort of someone who has traveled the world with an open mind for many years, not looking for simple, textbook answers, but searching for nuance, complexity, and perspective.

Understanding that his choice of words would most likely be converted into more political fodder for right-wing talk radio hosts in the U.S. to attack the Administration’s latest “un-American” foreign policy endeavors, Obama embraced the Summit in its diversity, and seemed to welcome it as a unique opportunity for expanding his knowledge and understanding.

Cuba Making Waves

Much was said about Washington’s overtures towards Cuba prior to the start of the Summit, namely the loosening of travel restrictions to the island for Cuban Americans and a willingness to engage the Cuban government on a wide range of issues. These developments occupied a great deal of the news coverage of the first 24 hours of the gathering, and followed an unprecedented amount of diplomatic maneuvers between Havana and Washington that was unfolding at breakneck speed.

What was less reported was Obama’s recognition on Sunday of Cuba’s historic role in medical assistance throughout the world, and Havana’s health care solidarity for the poorest countries of the hemisphere, something the President apparently heard a lot about from the many leaders he met with over the weekend as they tried to convince him to end the decades-long U.S. embargo against the island nation.

“It’s a reminder for us in the United States,” President Obama was quoted in the New York Times, “that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence.”

It may not lead to the radical shifts that many people have been looking for, but that Cuba has something to show the United States is groundbreaking stuff, if one considers the intransigence and hostility that has characterized Washington’s stubborn position towards Havana for the last fifty years.

Throughout the few days of meetings and public engagements, Obama projected a worldview not shaped by that lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance that has so often poisoned past encounters between U.S. Presidents and the countries that occupy, what some closed-minded pundits still consider to be, “our own backyard.” In responding to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s scathing 50-minute critique of U.S. imperial power in the region, which included a reminder about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, Obama openly distanced himself from the dangerous arrogance that comes with unchecked economic and military power. At the same time, unlike his immediate predecessor, he did not demonstrate a childish ignorance, one that all too often permeates Washington policy-making circles, allowing it to dictate failed remedies repeatedly, all the while not fully understanding the history of the many societies with which it is engaging.

"I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old," Obama said, to laughter and applause from the other leaders present. It should be pointed out that, in its website, the conservative Fox News called this a misstatement on the part of the President, reminding us that the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion took place in April 1961, and Obama was born in August of that same year. So indeed, Obama misspoke! Shame on him! He was not even born when Kennedy engaged in this foreign policy fiasco!

Changing the Tone with Evo and Hugo?

Although it did not get much attention in the U.S. news media covering the event, the Fifth Summit of the Americas was taking place in the wake of an assassination attempt against one of the event’s participants, President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Bolivian security forces said they thwarted an assassination plot against Morales, the first indigenous leader elected president of that country. The agents killed three people, including two Hungarians and a Bolivian, in a half-hour shootout in the opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz on Thursday.

According to several reports, President Morales confronted Obama during a private session, saying that the U.S. is meddling in his country and had plotted to assassinate him. Obama responded saying, “I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments.”

One important message Obama appears to be sending by his performance at the Summit of the Americas is that shortsighted domestic politics, shaped by reactionary yet powerful constituents back home, will not have the final say in how the White House will develop its policy towards the region. The incremental steps taken with respect to Cuba, however limited they may be, are a clear indication of this.

More striking was that now famous first encounter with President Chavez, who, in recent years, through the narrow prism of the U.S. corporate media, has emerged as even more of a problem for Washington than the Castro brothers. All reports from the Summit show that Obama was the first to approach Chavez, who responded positively to the President’s gesture by saying “I want to be your friend.”

Obama rejected criticism of taking such an approach. "The whole notion was that if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness,” Obama said on Sunday at the end of the Summit. “It doesn’t make sense."

Not surprisingly, however, it did not take long for the negative reaction to start making its way through the toxic filters of the corporate media. Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada told CNN that it was “irresponsible for the president” to be seen laughing and joking with “one of the most anti-American leaders in the entire world.”

I can’t wait to hear Hannity and Rush this week. I’m sure they’ll have a lot of colorful things to say about this close encounter of the un-American kind!

Clearly Obama must have known that the images of him smiling with the notorious Venezuelan leader – including a very visible hand shake among “comrades” more commonly seen among participants at the World Social Forum than at the Summit of the Americas – would make their way back to the cable TV talk show circus that pollutes the airwaves with misinformation every night. But it did not seem to matter to him in the larger scheme of things.

Obama understands that Venezuela is not a “hostile” nation, whatever that means. Judging from some of his comments in his opening address, he also recognizes the historical contradiction in Washington’s decades-long embrace of undemocratic and corrupt regimes in Caracas, who were acceptable to U.S. policy makers for decades only because those governments fell obediently in line behind Washington’s unbending appetite for Venezuelan crude.

“We have to stand up against any force that separates any of our people from that story of liberty — whether it’s crushing poverty or corrosive corruption; social exclusion or persistent racism or discrimination. Here in this room, and on this day, we see the diversity of the Americas. Every one of our nations has a right to follow its own path,” he said.

Furthermore, as a student of (recent) history, Obama is not unaware of the role the Bush Administration played in supporting the ill-fated coup in 2002 that temporarily pushed the democratically-elected Chavez out of office. Undoubtedly he has been briefed on the U.S. government’s ongoing financial and political support of the Venezuelan opposition, something that does not sit well with Chavez, and would be unacceptable for people in Washington if the roles were reversed. So his public greeting to Chavez was a welcome step forward, however superficial or symbolic.

Yes, the White House was forced to downplay this temporary easing of tensions later, with Obama saying the Venezuelan leader’s inflammatory rhetoric has been “a source of concern.” And evidently, Obama looked a little uncomfortable on Saturday when Chavez walked over to him and handed him a copy of the book “The Open Veins of Latin America,” by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, a classic text celebrated by several generations throughout the continent as the clearest denunciation of U.S. imperialism. One could only hope that Obama actually reads the book, and in the process of learning, takes into consideration some of Galeano’s incisive critique.

Lest critics of Obama’s small gesture gain any traction, it must be stated that already some progress was made in Trinidad when it comes to U.S.-Venezuela relations. Venezuela and the United States expelled each other’s ambassadors in September 2008. At the summit, Chavez approached Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and said he was restoring his nation’s ambassador in Washington, expressing optimism for a new era in positive relations.

"We ratify our willingness to begin what has started: cementing new relations," Chavez said on Venezuelan television. "We have the very strong willingness to work together."

Why would anybody frown upon opening the lines of communication once again, especially if you recall that in January, Chavez said Obama had the same "stench" as former President Bush after Obama criticized Chavez for backing FARC guerillas in neighboring Colombia. Earlier this month, during a trip to Iran, Chavez said, "I hope President Obama is the last president of the Yankee Empire, and the first president of a truly democratic republic, the United States." While the tone has changed a lot in the last few days, only time will tell if Chavez’ hope will be fulfilled.

Reasons to Be Concerned

I am not overly optimistic, and would like to think that I have not been blindsided by Obama’s rhetorical skills and diplomatic capacity at the expense of substance. Indeed, I should point out there is still considerable reason to be concerned about U.S. Latin America policy on many fronts.

In his brief visit to Mexico on Thursday, Obama acknowledged the problems of U.S. drug consumption and the facility with which weapons are acquired in the U.S. by the violent drug cartels south of the border, a welcome change in counter-drug rhetoric that at least partially accepts responsibility for the problems that emanate from the drug trade. However, as the Washington Office on Latin America has clearly documented in recent reports about U.S. counter-drug policies, there is an over-emphasis on military and security strategies to address the problems, and not enough focus on judicial reform, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and economic development that would limit the influence and the attraction of the drug trade in the Mexican countryside. This is a recipe for disaster.

As for Colombia, despite talking tough against the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement during the campaign on human rights grounds, the Obama Administration is taking active steps, albeit quietly, to resume talks on jumpstarting the controversial bilateral trade deal. Some of this may be the result of the ongoing talk of the Colombian “success story” under President Alvaro Uribe, an assessment that has taken on a life of its own in the U.S. media, leading journalists like Scott Wilson in the Washington Post to even suggest that Obama should apply the "Colombia model" in its war in Afghanistan. Colombia’s El Tiempo reported on Saturday that Uribe and Obama will most likely meet in the coming months, first in Washington, and later in the year in Colombia, despite a somewhat cool start to their relationship after Obama’s election in November. These improved relations between Washington and Bogotá may not be greeted favorably by Colombian human rights advocates who have been highly critical of Uribe’s human rights record since taking office in 2002.

Furthermore, there is still a long way to go on Cuba. Indeed, the final declaration of the Summit was not ratified because several countries did not want to endorse a gathering that for years has excluded Cuba from the deliberations. Many of the leaders present pressed Obama on ending the embargo against Cuba, and are urging the re-instatement of Cuba into the Organization of American States. The careful language used by Administration officials basically saying the ball was in Castro’s court is an indication that it may be some time before we see any further movement in Cuba policy, despite the ringing endorsement for such change by everybody present.

Finally, I think we cannot overlook one other aspect of the situation in Latin America that ultimately will be quite significant in the future relationship between Washington and the governments of the region, and something Obama must not ignore if he wants to avoid repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. This is especially important to consider given the growing economic crisis in the U.S., which has yet to be fully felt by the countries of the south. I refer to the 40-50% of the population that continues to be struggling precariously in extreme poverty, and whose interests are scarcely represented in these high profile gatherings like the one we just witnessed over the weekend.

Indeed, one sector that has been completely absent in most of the coverage of the Summit has been the Latin American social movements, the tens of millions of people – indigenous, peasant, of African descent, workers, students – who have throughout the region stepped up and made their voices heard, in the sugar cane fields, in the factories, on the streets and in the ballot boxes. These are the people who are actively confronting the neo-liberal economic model of free trade, deregulation, and cuts in social spending, a model that today is witnessing an international crisis of traumatic proportions, forever stripping it of its legitimacy. These movements have always rejected U.S. militarism and the implementation of security policies that serve only a small percentage of the population of the hemisphere, at the expense of the vast majority of the people. They have been calling for a recognition and adoption by their own governments of the many international charters and treaties that call for the respect of humanitarian law, environmental protection, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the defense of labor. And they are building democratic, grassroots structures that have expanded their reach of solidarity and action throughout the hemisphere and the rest of the world, in a global movement for change from the bottom up, against business as usual.

Many of them no doubt feel betrayed by their representatives attending this weekend’s Summit in Trinidad. For some, as they watched their governments cozy up to Washington over the past few days, there is probably a feeling creeping up once again of being left out of the discussion, of deliberate exclusion.

Obama must be open to hear these voices as well, if he is truly looking to open up a new era in Pan American relations. He must listen, and hopefully learn some important lessons in the process.

I’ve heard some people make the argument recently that Obama is the U.S. manifestation of the broader wave of progressive governments that have been democratically elected throughout the hemisphere in recent years? From Argentina to El Salvador, Bolivia to Paraguay, Brazil to Ecuador, a wide range of political tendencies and movements have emerged to challenge the hegemony of the United States in the region.

So too was Obama elected by a U.S. public that was seeking fundamental changes in the direction of the country, indeed the world.

This weekend, Obama showed some promise.

But it’s up to us to make sure he does a lot more when it comes to our America.

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor and Chair of the Department of Radio, Television, Film at Hofstra University in New York, and author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories, 2004). He hosts Wake UP Call on WBAI Pacifica Radio in New York, and blogs at http://Mamaradio.blogspot.com