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Engaging Latin America

Barack Obama's recent first encounter with Latin American leaders highlights some of the challenges

It was unlikely that Barack Obama’s first engagement with Latin America would come close to satisfying the demands of the region’s changed political leadership. But compared to their relations with the Bush administration, any small step in the direction of friendship could be cause for celebration.

Last week, Barack Obama lifted the restrictions on the amount of money Cuban-Americans could send to their relatives back home and how often they could visit the island. This weekend, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he warmly met most of the region’s leaders, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.

Chávez certainly saw the weekend as a success. He said, with characteristic hyperbole, that the summit represented “one of the greatest victories of our history” and announced plans to re-establish diplomatic ties with the US.

But in the US itself, all of the talk was about the photographs of the two men meeting, and the book Chávez gifted to Obama.

Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Uruguayan Eduardo Gallardo is an academic tome from the 1970s and a classic of the South American left. It tells a story of ongoing foreign exploitation and domination, first at the hands of the Europeans, then of the North Americans.

Despite the obvious message, Obama accepted the gift graciously. In any case, the book was given in its original Spanish, a language which Obama does not read. Some have likened this to a faux pas on the level of the famous Obama-Brown DVD format blunder, but Chávez seems nevertheless to have been successful in delivering his message to a wider audience.

The day after the book was given, it jumped on America’s from number 54,295 to number 2 on the bestseller list. This is not typical bestseller material in the United States, the number 1 title being “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto” and five of the items in the top ten are from the Twilight series, which takes readers through the trials and travails of teen vampires in love.

Most of the substantive dialogue of the Summit in Trinidad and Tobago was centred around the US trade embargo on Cuba, whose Raul Castro remained excluded from the meeting. Opposition to the embargo is now near-universal amongst Latin America’s leaders, and they let Obama know it.

The message came not only from the leftists, but also close US ally Alvaro Uribe and Brazil’s moderate and enormously popular Lula, who also joined many others in stressing that excluding Cuba from the meeting was unacceptable.

Obama is beginning to hear the same message more and more at home. There is growing bipartisan support in the US congress for the change of a policy that for almost five decades has failed to effect any changes in Cuba, causes unnecessary privation in both countries, and may make sceptical Latin leaders less likely to collaborate on other issues important to Washington.

But the embargo issue is politically sensitive, partially because strong lobbies of right-wing Cuban voters live in Florida, a large swing state that tends to be extremely important in deciding US elections.

And while Latin America’s leaders were delighted to have a man in the White House who is willing to talk to them, Obama has only done the bare minimum dictated by his campaign promises to change US policy towards Latin America. The bans he lifted were small additional restrictions added by the Bush administration and while Obama politely took heat at the Summit on US-Cuba relations, he made no indication that change on the embargo was likely to come soon.

Obama seems to be set on spending most of his political capital on his domestic agenda, where the economic crisis has brought the economy to the forefront with his debt-financed fiscal stimulus and plans to raise taxes on the rich already earning criticism. On 15th April, the day Americans turn in their taxes, conservative groups organised “Tea Parties,” attempting to invoke the revolutionary furore of American opposition to what was seen as excessive British taxation in Boston in 1773.

And even when US attention is given to Latin America, Mexico is taking the lion’s share. There, shocking levels of drug-related violence are spilling over the country’s northern border into the US.

Not long after taking office in 2006, Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon declared all-out war on his country’s drug cartels. The problem is that this may not be a war his government is capable of winning, and the stalemate has claimed 10,000 lives and turned many of the country’s border regions into pockets of lawlessness and violence.

Some have likened Mexico to a failed state in a civil war, and the US is deeply involved, not only because of its proximity. The market for drugs which creates the gangs and the gun supply which arms them are both north of the border.

And as Latin American leaders may have no reason to soon expect radical action from Obama on Cuba or engagement with their leftist governments, nor can they afford to wait for change to come from the North, as the last two particularly eventful weeks have demonstrated.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s socialist and indigenous president finally ended a self-imposed five-day hunger strike after the opposition stopped blocking a vote on an indigenous council in the legislature, which will allow expatriates to vote.

And on Thursday, a gunfight broke out there in a hotel in Santa Cruz as police attempted to arrest five foreign men Bolivian authorities now claim were plotting to assassinate Morales and other officials of his government.

The police killed three men in that hotel, including an Irish citizen, who had reportedly been in one of the two well-armed hotel rooms with right-wing veterans of the wars in Yugoslavia.

When Morales brought the issue up at the Summit, Obama said he knew nothing about it, and affirmed his administration would never have anything to do with violently overthrowing democratically elected governments.

Such a modest commitment may be enough for now. Since the Bush administration turned away from Latin America with its tail between its legs twice, first after giving its tacit approval for a failed coup attempt against Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, and then in 2005 at the last Summit of the Americas, where Bush was forced to give up on his plans for a Free Trade Area and left early and embarrassed, democratically elected left-wing governments have established themselves in the majority of Latin American countries.

These countries are extremely united and have set about articulating a development path which differs from the neoliberal prescriptions of the Washington Consensus, even before these policies were called into question by the financial crisis.

Though they might wish for much more action from Obama to bring Washington into line with the realities of the hemisphere, especially on Cuba, they may be content for now to simply keep from returning to the kinds of relations described in the book that Mr Chávez gave to the new US President.