Obama cleans slate to rewrite US-Latin American ties

Buenos Aires/Port of Spain, April 21 (Inditop) US President Barack Obama delivered a good mix of words and gestures at the Summit of the Americas to wipe the slate clean for his new approach to US-Latin American relations, despite a deep heritage of mistrust.

Obama acknowledged a history of US interventionism that many in Latin America continue to resent. But he sought – and by all accounts left Trinidad and Tobago with – the space to write a new future.

Other leaders in the hemisphere now “at least see that we are not dug in into policies that were formulated before I was born”, Obama told reporters.

His first major meeting with regional leaders had been billed as a likely setting for conflict, particularly on the issue of communist Cuba.

The last Summit of the Americas in late 2005 in the Argentine resort city of Mar del Plata was a diplomatic disaster, with deep divisions among Latin American countries and a majority of those present opposed to the Washington-sponsored Free-Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

The summit in Port of Spain was a completely different story, launching what Obama described as “a new era of partnership”.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had voiced scepticism ahead of the meeting that Obama would really listen and learn.

Within minutes of Obama’s arrival late Friday in Port of Spain, however, the first African-American to reach the White House appeared to tame the firebrand Venezuelan – a long-time critic of US policy – with a spontaneous handshake.

After that, everything appeared to run very smoothly. With the mix of humility, spontaneity and the “sincerity” that even Cuban leader Fidel Castro has acknowledged by now, Obama managed to convince his peers that Latin America’s ties with Washington have indeed changed.

Chavez hailed the meeting as “a good start”.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – who had already met Obama twice and appeared to have got on well with him – admitted that he was “extremely surprised” by the positive atmosphere in Port of Spain.

Venezuela decided to restore diplomatic ties with the US, and Chavez designated former foreign minister Roy Chaderton as his ambassador, pending reciprocation from the White House.

Diplomatic ties between Venezuela and the US were suspended in September, when the US ambassador in Venezuela was expelled. The decision was made in “solidarity” with a similar move by the Bolivian government over an alleged US conspiracy against Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Morales – another fierce critic of the US – was also impressed at the summit. “If Obama keeps his word, we are on the right track,” he said.

Obama admitted that the US “has a history in this region” and that US policy had strayed from its own values in the past, with intervention that made Latin Americans suspicious of Washington to this day.

Obama stressed that the US remains critical to the economic welfare of the region, and he drafted new guidelines for ties under his administration. He told his fellow-leaders that he had “a lot to learn”.

“There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based upon mutual respect, common interests and shared values,” he said in the opening ceremony Friday.

Obama made a historic offer of dialogue with Cuba that went a long way to prove his good will, though he fell short of meeting the Latin American demand that he lift the US economic embargo against the communist island.

The summit in Port of Spain delivered an important result, he said: “We showed that while we have our differences we can work together.”

For Lula, the summit in Trinidad and Tobago proved that it was “fully possible to have a new relationship of friendship” between the US and the rest of the Americas.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon hailed: “There are better days for the Americas after this summit.”