After almost two years of parsing first candidate then President elect and now President Barack Obama’s words for his ideas on Latin America, the world will finally get a view in April 17, 18 and 19 in Trinidad and Tobago at the Summit of the Americas. Certainly President Obama’s recent interview with Univision caused some consternation among Venezuelan public officials who saw his statements regarding Venezuela as an affront to national sovereignty and dignity. But beyond the usual sensitivities, President Obama’s meeting in the Caribbean with the 33 other elected heads of state, coming on the heels of his first international meeting with NATO allies, will provide a rare moment for the President to focus on the region—in the midst of a multitude of other demands on his time and attention—and begin to articulate a new vision for the hemisphere.
In contradiction to a recent response to an earlier blog post of mine, I really do believe that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to the Summit of the Americas is worthwhile. (I agree with Richard Feinberg that this is our opportunity to recast our relations in the hemisphere in a new and more positive light. I just believe that we—including the hemispheric community—need to be more cautious about the goals of the process and not build in multiple unfunded mandates, a series of meaningless discussion forums, and endless reams of recommendations—that often amount to little more than platitudes and demands that states do something, though what and how is never clear. (Though I’ll confess Nicole Kidman and fireworks would be nice too)
Let’s just scale back our expectations and use this as a modest opportunity to reach out to a new freshman class of elected heads of state and a way to broaden the agenda beyond (but still including) free trade.
For, despite the hopes of a number of free trade skeptics, President Obama is not about to roll back free trade or U.S. commitments with free trade partners in the hemisphere. The then-President elect’s meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon resulted in a clarification of what Obama meant by a re-negotiation of NAFTA: namely, the possible re-opening of discussions on the labor and environmental side agreements—not a whole-scale rethink of the entire agreement and free trade itself as many feared.
Certainly in Trinidad and Tobago a number of countries, including Peru (which has an FTA with the U.S.) and Colombia (which has a pending FTA before the U.S. Congress) will have trade on their minds and whether the new President will follow through on obligations made by his predecessor.
Beyond the minutiae and promises of summits past, a number of observers have high hopes for President Obama’s first public foray into Latin America. Conservatives hope that he reinforces some of the pro-democracy positions and regional initiatives launched by his predecessor. But while many of these principled stands deserve consistency, hewing inflexibly to issues such as repeating concerns about democracy in Venezuela or reiterating well-known U.S. positions on human rights violations and political prisoners in Cuba only risks reopening many of the divisions that led to the fiasco at Mar del Plata—which the Heritage Foundation also (rightly) condemns. Instead, diplomacy, in this case, will be the better part of valor.
Why not—rather than re-state well-known U.S. positions—listen first to the concerns and wishes of our American partners, concerning regional cooperation, poverty, inequality and climate change? (To name a few.) Doing so will prove a much more effective way to build consensus around our already well-known position, which can and should remain principled but not blunt instruments. No one will be surprised (not to mention won over) by a U.S. delegation that arrives at a Latin America summit and rails against Cuba and cautions its neighbors about Venezuela. They will be surprised by a U.S. delegation that before the summit and during the proceedings takes the time to listen to the concerns and demands of its summit partners. And they may even be won over to the other positions.
Better yet here’s a novel idea: before traveling to the summit, why not lift the travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban Americans put in place by the Bush administration. Those measures are not part of the U.S. law regarding the embargo and have proven unpopular even among Cuban-Americans in Miami. Removing them was Obama’s campaign promise and doing so could provide an opportunity to demonstrate that a less ideological and (with a strong message about human rights in Cuba) no less principled administration has arrived.