At the Summit of the Americas–held in Trinidad and Tobago April 17-19 and attended by the leaders of every nation in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba–Barack Obama went far toward repairing the damage caused by more than two decades of disastrous economic policy and seven years of neoconservative interventionism. America’s adventures have included support for a failed coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in 2002, orchestration of a successful one against Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and what appeared to be tacit approval for an attempt to oust Bolivian president Evo Morales last year.
In Trinidad Obama seemed not so much the good neighbor as the good student. He graciously accepted Chávez’s gift of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America and took notes during Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega’s lengthy speech recounting Washington’s aggression against his country (of which, as president during Ronald Reagan’s Contra war, Ortega had firsthand knowledge). Obama responded to demands that he speak out against a recently thwarted plot to assassinate Evo Morales by unequivocally condemning “any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments, wherever it happens in the hemisphere.” And when asked at his closing press conference what he had learned at the summit, Obama said that he’d heard many complaints about a “too rigid application of a free-market doctrine” imposed by “what is termed the ‘Washington Consensus.'”
There is no other region, save perhaps Europe, that offers Obama a better chance to practice the kind of cooperative diplomacy he has defined as the goal of his administration. Except for civil war in Colombia and drug violence in Mexico, Latin America is at peace; nuclear weapons are not a concern; most countries are led by democratically elected presidents committed to a progressive hemispheric agenda that would downplay terrorism and put top priority on alleviating poverty, inequality, crime and environmental problems. Yet having diversified their ties with China, Europe and the Middle East over the past decade, Latin American governments now expect to deal with the United States as equals. They are willing to help Washington manage its decline and ease its transition into a multipolar world, but they are no longer likely to submit to its dictates.
If Obama wants Latin America’s help, he must do more than listen. At the summit, he said Washington would consider ending its five-decade economic embargo of Cuba (in the run-up to the meeting, the White House lifted a ban on Cuban-Americans traveling and sending money to the island) when Cuban officials send “some signals that they’re serious about pursuing change.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham put it more bluntly: “Put up or shut up.”
Latin Americans could say the same to us; so far, Obama’s good words have not been matched by many good deeds.
In contrast to the diplomatic quagmires in the Middle East and elsewhere, it would be relatively easy to modernize diplomacy in the Americas. Immigration reform and gun control would be good places to start. Mexico’s drug-related homicides have increased–last year there were more than 5,000, and 90 percent of the weapons that could be traced came from the United States. Obama could also resurrect the Jubilee Act, which cancels billions in debt from the world’s poorest countries, many of them in Latin America. As a senator, Obama was a main sponsor of the bill, which passed the House but died in the Senate.