President Obama landed at Andrews AFB late yesterday afternoon, completing a very significant trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. The visits highlighted relationships, and societies, that have truly transformed themselves; opening vast new opportunities for cooperation that can help us meet big twenty-first century challenges. Many of them are daunting, but everything I experienced on the trip reinforces a sense of optimism I have about the Americas and about what we can achieve together.
The three countries the President visited have very distinct histories and national experiences that extend to their relations with us. But across all the President’s meetings—with Presidents Rousseff, Piñera and Funes, as well as other senior officials, plus civil society and business leaders, there was a common spirit. It was forward-looking and pragmatic—and unmistakable: a desire to work together in concrete ways to address real issues, in the Americas and in the world. The agendas for the President’s meetings were as varied as you can imagine. They included the crises in North Africa and the Middle East; economic growth and competitiveness; social inclusion, food security, and education; civil aviation and space cooperation; nuclear security; the fight against transnational crime; financial reform, and many other issues—as extensive a roster of today’s challenges as we would discuss with our most important Asian or European partners.
But just as noteworthy was the quality of dialogue. Absent were the formulaic repetitions of positions, or even finger pointing, that sometimes dilute the impact of bilateral meetings. Instead, I heard the President tackling even some of the toughest issues—often mutual challenges—in our relationships with candor and directness. His counterparts picked up on this immediately, and responded in kind. For example, on immigration, a major issue for President Funes, in particular, the President talked at length about the complicated politics that surround the issue in our society, and his commitment to continue pursuing comprehensive reform consistent with our values and national interests.
Equally remarkable was the convergence of vision between the President and the leaders of Brazil, Chile and El Salvador on so many of the issues they discussed. It doesn’t mean we don’t have differences to manage, but it reflects a deep recognition of the basic values and interests our societies share. Today, that recognition provides a powerful impetus for the kind of practical cooperation that is coming to define relations between the United States and the countries of Latin America.
Presidential meetings can be the best drivers for pending bilateral business. The dozens and dozens of agreements brought to completion on the margins of the visits illustrate the remarkable breadth and depth of our partnerships in Latin America. They document materially, and poignantly, a very promising new dynamic that has taken hold in our relationships in the Americas.
Last Friday, in a speech in Washington, Secretary Clinton spoke about a new story in Latin America—about increasingly dynamic, democratic, twenty-first century societies, engaging on a regional and world stage to address old problems and new opportunities. If you didn’t see or hear her remarks you should. She talked about how vital the success of our engagement in the Americas is to our country, our competitiveness, and our security.
The President understands this. That’s why the trip went forward—a considered decision—despite crises in Libya, Middle East and Japan. This speaks more clearly than anything to the priority the President places on relations with our partners in the Americas, and to all they can contribute to advancing interests vital to all our peoples.
*Arturo A. Valenzuela is the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.