Summit needs a strong Obama, not an apologetic one
Economic blame, Cuba, and Chávez, challenge new US-Latin American relations.
President Obama has promised to spend plenty of time listening to his fellow leaders this week at the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago – as well he should. But the US can't afford to turn the gathering of assembled leaders from North, Central and South America into just a Latin listening tour with photo ops.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Obama needs to exert critical leadership – something conspicuously absent from his European tour earlier this month – and launch a "new start" in US-Latin American relations.
Strong economic gains over the past five years have lifted millions of Latin Americans out of poverty. Now those gains are threatened by the world downturn. A weak US stance could mean a return to the lost, no-growth decade of the 1980s in Latin America.
The summit aims to develop a common framework (and a rapport among the leaders) that will help them to work in closer partnership to meet the hemisphere's major challenges intelligently and creatively. This year, those challenges include prosperity, energy security, and environmental sustainability.
To make substantive progress in these areas, the president will have to navigate safely past three major hazards on his Caribbean voyage: the Great Guilt Reef, the Cuban Charybdis, and the Shoals of Chávez.
The Great Guilt Reef
Latin American leaders appear ready to pin the blame for the collapse of the region's economic growth on someone – anyone – other than themselves. Many will be happy to point the finger at the policy prescriptions known as "the Washington consensus," (free markets, the privatization movement) – what Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez calls "savage capitalism." Others will cite the US for waffling on free trade or its inability to resolve drug and immigration policy debates.
In Europe, Obama repeatedly apologized for alleged American shortcomings. He shouldn't have done that there and he shouldn't be so accommodating with Latin American leaders. Foreign leaders see wresting admissions of US error or failure as an easy way to improve their standing at home. It also gives them greater leverage in negotiations with the US.
The US must not become a guilt-ridden punching bag. Instead, Obama should stand tall and make clear that – even though the Oval Office has changed hands – the US remains committed to the tenets of liberal democracy, competitive markets, free trade, and the rule of law. As for immigration- and drug-policy reform, those issues require serious discussion of both the supply and demand sides of the equation – not one-sided, guilt-ridden capitulation.
The Cuban Charybdis