WASHINGTON – Barack Obama’s mission to Latin America was about goodwill, and he came home claiming progress, backed by leaders from the region who took a liking to his here-to-listen style. But the real test awaits.
As Obama himself put it, recasting a relationship takes not just words, but deeds.
So Obama embraced Cuba’s overture to put every issue on the table, but he wants the Castro government to free political prisoners. He had attention-snaring handshakes and smiles with Hugo Chavez, but he wants the Venezuelan leader to stop being an authoritarian figure. Obama pledged the U.S. and Mexico are united on the drug war, but violence keeps on raging.
For now, Obama has what he wanted. A start.
“What we showed here is that we can make progress when we’re willing to break free from some of the stale debates and old ideologies that have dominated and distorted the debate in this hemisphere for far too long,” he said Sunday at the end of the Summit of the Americas.
Meanwhile, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich charged Monday that Obama’s cordial greeting with Chavez sent a poor message to enemies of America by giving legitimacy and credibility to the fiery Venezuelan leader.
“What I find distressing, is that the administration opposes opening up oil exploration,” but yet Obama “bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia” and now has reached out to Chavez, Gingrich said on NBC’s “Today” show.
“Cuba releases zero prisoners,” he said, “yet we make nice with Cuba. I’m for doing things methodically and calmly … things that will work, but I’m not for deluding myself about smiles and words.”
The White House hopes it will all pay off – Obama’s personal diplomacy, his promises to lead without lecturing, his willingness to hear leftist leaders gripe about the past.
Obama even spelled out how, in his view, that political chain of events will happen.
He said countries will be more apt to cooperate with the United States on tough issues, even if only on the margins.
Resistance based on anti-American conceptions of the past will fall away. And nations already friendly to the U.S. will be more willing to help because their people and neighbors will “see us as a force for good or at least not a force for ill.”
Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva said the U.S. and Latin America are now “creating a new way of looking at each other, of defeating our differences.”
Even Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, a critic of U.S. policy, said he found Obama receptive to dealing with the issues raised at the summit in Trinidad and Tobago. Ortega said Obama “is the president of an empire” that has rules the president cannot change. Nevertheless, he said, “I want to believe that he’s inclined, that he’s got the will.”
The dragging economy didn’t consume nearly the attention it normally would have at a summit of the type. The U.S. relationship with its peers framed the debate.
In a closing news conference, Obama offered up lines bound to appeal to those following his words across the Americas. He spoke of standing up for freedoms but respecting the cultures of other democracies, even if the U.S. deeply opposes the policies of a country.
His message: The United States should be a leader in democracy, but not a lecturer.
“And so if we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand,” Obama said. “That allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.”
On Cuba, he said the government in Havana should release political prisoners, embrace democratic freedoms and cut fees on the money that Cuban-Americans send back to their families. Obama has lifted some restrictions on Cuba, and Cuban President Raul Castro responded with a broad, conciliatory overture.
As for Venezuela, Obama’s friendly encounters with Chavez at the summit drew intense publicity — partly, Obama said, because Chavez is good at getting in front of TV cameras. Chavez’s anti-American rhetoric has, in the past, led Obama to call him a demagogue.
Obama faced criticism from some Republicans about how he dealt with Chavez. He countered, “It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”
Nearing the 100-day mark of his presidency, Obama has spent much of April overseas. He made a splash in Europe, darted into the war zone in Iraq, and just spent four days in a region of the world where resentment for American power can run deep.
“I’ve got to get home,” Obama told reporters before doing just that late Sunday evening.
The president planned to meet with his Cabinet on Monday to ask department and agency heads to offer ways to trim their budgets. Later in the day, Obama was to visit the CIA headquarters and deliver a public message on the agency’s importance to national security.