Lula to push Obama on Latin America policy

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will urge U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday to open talks with leftist governments in Venezuela and Cuba and make aid and development the focus of his Latin America policy.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks after receiving his economic daily briefing with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington March 11, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Lula, a charismatic former union leader and moderate within the Latin American left, wants the United States to move away from what he sees as a heavy-handed approach to the region and focus on incentives to resolve economic and social problems.

Relations between the United States and much of Latin America turned rocky under the recent Bush administration.

The Iraq War and the contentious prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba fueled latent anti-American sentiment throughout Latin America, a region scarred by a long history of U.S. military intervention.

Many were also unhappy with Washington’s use of sanctions to punish unfriendly governments and its perceived obsession with combating drug smuggling and criminal gangs.

“What I want is for the United States to look at Latin America and South America with a friendly eye,” Lula said last week. “We are a democratic and peaceful continent and the United States should look at production and development, not only drug-trafficking and organized crime.”

Lula, who wants to give Brazil a greater voice on the international stage, criticized the United States for stripping Bolivia of trade preferences last year because it allegedly did too little to combat drugs.

He said Washington should help the poor Andean nation fight poverty and drugs by increasing commerce and investment.

Praised by Wall Street for adopting market-friendly policies, Lula said he will urge Obama to improve ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist and fierce U.S. critic, and end the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.

“It’s impossible not to talk about the Cuban embargo. It’s indicative of U.S. policy toward the region,” Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told reporters on Wednesday.

Ailing former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has expressed cautious optimism about Obama. Chavez said last week that he had authorized Lula to talk to Obama on his behalf, but the fiery former paratrooper said he has doubts about Obama’s willingness to improve relations.


Brazil has high hopes for the visit and makes much of the fact that the 63-year-old Lula is one of the first heads of state to be received in Washington by Obama, following visits by the prime ministers of Britain and Japan.

Brazilian officials also are encouraged by what they see as common ground on policy and similarities in their rise to power. Lula is Brazil’s first working-class president and Obama is the first African-American to win the White House.

“There’s an affinity of thought that will allow us to deepen the relationship,” Amorim said.

Obama’s pledge to dismantle the Guantanamo prison camp and cut some farm subsidies to improve school lunches were applauded in Brazil, an agricultural powerhouse that has been a vocal advocate of free farm trade.

But the U.S. Trade Representative’s criticism of proposed safeguards for developing countries in the Doha round of global trade negotiations dampened hopes Lula could persuade Obama to push for a quick conclusion to the seven-year-old talks.

The magnitude of the economic crisis in the United States also may make it difficult for Lula to focus Obama’s attention on Cuba and Venezuela let alone Brazil’s demand for a cut to U.S. import tariffs on Brazilian ethanol.

“He’s not going to solve the ethanol problem or get any pledges of investment, much less advance Doha in midst of a global crisis,” said Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington. “And the U.S. Congress is approving a minimalist reform of the Cuban embargo.”

“He will get recognition that Brazil is a special partner for its growing economic importance and its role as a moderator in the region,” he added. “Given the relative U.S. indifference toward Latin America, that’s not bad.”

Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas, Editing by Todd Benson and Paul Simao