Obama seeks new relationship with Latin America

WASHINGTON Sun Apr 12, 2009 8:16am EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a news conference at the NATO summit in Strasbourg, April 4, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a news conference at the NATO summit in Strasbourg, April 4, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will try to establish a cooperative new relationship with Latin America this week, but U.S. resistance to change on highly symbolic issues like Cuba and immigration could undercut the effort, analysts said.

Obama travels to Mexico on Thursday for his first visit to the region as president and heads to Trinidad and Tobago on Friday for the Fifth Summit of the Americas. As he did at the G20 summit of major economic powers in London this month, the president plans to emphasize listening to regional leaders and working on shared goals.

"With all that is at stake today, we cannot afford to talk past one another," Obama said on Saturday in his weekly radio speech. "We have to find, and build on, our mutual interests."

Jeffrey Davidow, Obama's special adviser for the summit, said there had been a push to establish a new tone with pre-summit consultations and diplomacy. Obama met Mexican President Felipe Calderon before taking office and several Cabinet officials have visited Latin America.

"I think coming so early in the administration," Davidow said, "this ... legitimately can be seen as a new beginning."

Obama's popularity, compared to former President George W. Bush, and his performance at the G20 give him tremendous goodwill among fellow leaders as he begins the visit, analysts said, but much hinges on his pledge to listen and learn.

"WALK THE WALK"

"What matters is the day after," Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, told a briefing. "If the U.S. is ... saying that they're willing to listen and to learn ... you have to walk the walk.

"And in this regard there's a number of issues that should not be removed from the agenda: things like Cuba, things like immigration," he said.

Those issues, though not on the summit agenda, are sure to be debated. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and like-minded leaders are expected to push for Cuba to be readmitted to the Organization of American States. Debate over Cuba would underscore the divide between the United States and the region.

Washington has said it would not end its 47-year-old embargo on the communist island. But Obama is looking at loosening restrictions on family visits and remittances to Cuba, steps many view as inadequate.

"The measures that the administration seems to be willing to roll out regarding Cuban-American family travel are so limited in their impact, narrow in their scope that perversely this administration, which wants the summit not to be a Cuba summit, might make it a Cuba summit," said Julia Sweig, head of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

SPOTLIGHT ON U.S. ECONOMY

That would be a mistake, analysts said, because the main issue confronting the leaders is the global economic crisis. As Latin America's main trade partner, the United States can best help the situation by getting its own economy back on track.

"The recovery of the U.S. economy is the key factor and everyone will be looking to President Obama for his description of how his plans are laid out," said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International studies.

Moreno said five years of 5 percent growth had lifted 40 million people in Latin America out of extreme poverty, but a 1 percent drop in gross domestic product from the global recession would send 15 million people sliding back.

"The best way to assist the hemisphere would be to fix the U.S. economy, resisting understandable but self-defeating impulses toward trade and investment protectionism," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.

Many analysts said Latin America's pursuit of prudent economic policies over the past decade -- low debt, open markets, free trade -- had left it better able to cope with the global recession. Now the region needs to see the United States step up and take its own medicine, they said.

"I think we need to send a very strong signal to the world and to Latin America in particular that the advice that we were giving them earlier applies to us as well," said Mustafa Mohatarem, chief economist at General Motors.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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