WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama visits Latin America this week to try to boost U.S. influence in the region after two years of wrestling with a more pressing domestic agenda and two foreign wars.
Obama wants to boost trade to a fast-growing region and help jobs back home, discuss energy security at a time of rising oil prices, and draw closer to advancing power Brazil to help support its goals in global forum like the G20 and IMF.
Latin America wants the respect it feels it deserves and has not yet gotten from Washington in view of its significant economic development, while pushing on vital issues like trade, migration and drug trafficking-fueled crime gangs.
These topics also resonate loudly with U.S. voters along the Mexican border, injecting the incendiary domestic issues of gun control and immigration into the trip that are likely to surface during Obama’s 2012 presidential election campaign.
Here are some questions and answers about the trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.
Washington frames the trip in terms of supporting the gradual U.S. economic recovery by promoting exports to a region which is growing comfortably faster than the United States and that largely managed to sidestep the U.S.-sparked global recession.
China has boosted its business with Latin America and in some countries leapfrogged the United States as a trading partner.
Don’t expect deals to rival the massive contracts signed when President Barack Obama visited India in November. Modest goals for Brazil include progress on a trade and investment framework and bilateral tax treaty.
In Chile, the region’s poster child for political and economic development, the two countries are expected to sign a nuclear energy cooperation agreement.
In El Salvador, Obama will discuss the challenge of combating organized crime, while acknowledging this requires cooperation on a broad front and a shared responsibility to tackle the source of the crisis - U.S. demand for drugs.
Yes, and this is particularly true of Brazil, where the new government of President Dilma Rousseff has dialed down the rhetoric in comparison with her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. His defiance of the United States over Cuba and Iran and trade issues soured relations with the Obama administration, and the White House sees Rousseff’s election as a golden chance to improve relations.
“We see an enormous convergence of interest between Brazil and the United States and an enormous moment of opportunity here,” said Obama’s national security aide, Ben Rhodes.
Obama will acknowledge the country’s rapidly growing role on the world stage in a speech to the Brazilian people and his words will be carefully compared to speeches he delivered in India and Egypt to see if he accords Brazil similar respect.
Obama will tell Americans worried by unrest in the Middle East and the rise of gas prices back home that Latin America, and especially Brazil, can play a key role in providing the United States with energy security.
“It’s not just a main supplier of oil. It could also become a major supplier of alternative sources of energy, and ethanol from Brazil is obviously the most visible of all those new energy resources,” said Mauricio Cardenas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But trade will be a delicate topic. Obama’s travels conspicuously omit Colombia, which together with Panama is still waiting for his administration to send a long-stalled free trade agreement to the U.S. Congress.
Also, with the U.S. trade surplus with Brazil $11.4 billion last year, scope for deeper trade will be limited by Brazil’s demands for an end to U.S. agricultural subsidies, along with tariffs hindering Brazilian ethanol exports to the United States. Obama is not expected to announce any major push to get U.S. lawmakers to cut farm subsidies or lift ethanol tariffs.
In addition to visiting Brazil early in the life of the new government, Obama’s selection of Chile and El Salvador showcases two countries that have overcome political violence in their past to show democratic stability and a peaceful transfer of power between leftist and rightist parties.
Chile is a particularly good example of peaceful democratic transition, and El Salvador’s government is led by a former guerrilla group that once fought a U.S.-backed army but now seeks good relations with Washington.
This sends an implicit rebuke to communist Cuba and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, U.S. enemies criticized by Washington for thwarting democratic change.
There has been no sign so far that Chavez will stage a repeat of the dueling tour he threw in 2007 to coincide with the Latin American visit of then U.S. President George W Bush.
The White House says Obama’s popularity in the region has helped defuse anti-U.S. agitation.
Chavez, who has taken on Fidel Castro’s mantle as Latin America’s most vocal critic of Washington, initially said he hoped for better relations with Obama. But that quickly soured, with the leftist leader saying Obama was disappointing the world by following Bush’s foreign policies, and Chavez now routinely disparages “the empire” as before.
A dispute over the U.S. nominee for ambassador to Caracas, and more recently Chavez’s comments on the turmoil in Libya, show the two nations are as far apart as ever. Chavez has not yet commented on Obama’s forthcoming trip.
The United States is the top buyer of Venezuela’s oil, but the prospects of any diplomatic detente look remote. There appeared to be a slight thaw in January, however, when Chavez shook hands with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when they attended Rousseff’s inauguration ceremony in Brazil.
Another unspoken theme to Obama’s longest Latin American tour of his presidency so far is Cuba. Many in the region hoped Washington would have made much more progress on lifting a trade embargo in place since 1962 than has been the case.
Obama eased restrictions in April 2009 on Cuban American travel, but apart from a few other tweaks there has been no change and the embargo remains in place. The outlook for progress chilled further when a Cuban court last week sentenced a U.S. contractor to 15 years in prison on charges of trying to undermine the Havana government.
Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Caracas, Jeff Franks in Havana, Dave Graham in Mexico City, Simon Gardner in Santiago, and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Editing by Kieran Murray