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Humble Obama unites Latin leaders

His cooperative tone helped some leaders begin to move beyond historical grudges against the US.

By Staff writer / April 20, 2009

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (r.) gave President Obama a book on American imperialism in Latin America at the Summit of the Americas Saturday.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

A more humble approach to the region by the United States and its president this weekend helped put relations in the Americas on new and less combative footing, many of the leaders from the Summit of the Americas said Sunday.

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From his arrival on Friday, President Obama sought to convince leaders of the Western Hemisphere that he brought a new approach toward a region still suspicious of US intentions. He acknowledged past US heavy-handedness, saying too often Americans “sought to dictate our terms.”

His approach was cited repeatedly over the two days of discussions, with the president of the host nation, Trinidad and Tobago, saying “what could have been derailed” by dissension was instead strengthened after Mr. Obama unveiled “a new direction by the United States.”

Obama's posture spawned criticism in the US, however, with one Republican senator saying it was irresponsible for the president to be "laughing and joking" with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whom he characterized as "one of the most anti-American leaders in the entire world."

Fewer divisions, more work

Yet here, at an event that was Obama’s debut with Latin America, the usual divisions and posturing were replaced by a roll-up-the-sleeves spirit. The deep economic crisis facing the Western Hemisphere was certainly one reason. But so were Obama's efforts to create a new and more equal partnership between the US and its neighbors.

“We’ve shown there are no senior or junior partners in the Americas,” Obama said at the press conference Sunday.

This approach disarmed even the most anti-American among the participants, most notably Mr. Chávez, who called former President George W. Bush a devil. Here, he gave Obama a book – albeit one about American imperialism – and told Obama, "I want to be your friend."

Allies, too, were heartened by Obama's demeanor and tone. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Obama’s opening speech to the assembled leaders Friday germinated a new spirit that “caught on with other leaders as the summit moved on.”

US adapts to less influential role

In some respects, the new US approach simply reflects reality. While the health of the US economy remains vital to the region, the US is no longer the towering regional power it once was.

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