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.
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
This hazard has gained potency in the lead-up to the summit, thanks to last week's meeting between the Castro brothers and see-no-evil members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Add to that the ramped-up pressure from Latin American leaders and business opportunists in the US. Suddenly the administration has a tremendous pull to lift restrictions on trade and travel and to accept Cuba as a fully participating member of the inter-American system.
Obama must resist. Backtracking now would give the Castro brothers the economic and political oxygen needed to keep their failed totalitarian model muddling along.
Last May, candidate Obama outlined his Cuba policy. It would be guided by one word, "libertad," he promised. He went on to proclaim: "The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press, and freedom of assembly; and it must lead to elections that are free and fair."
This clearly stated, principled objective – conspicuously missing among the recent round of hosannas for Havana – should guide the president's course at the summit. New US measures to permit Cuban-Americans to travel to the island will not silence the pro-Castro chorus.
The Shoals of Chávez
Hugo Chávez chomps to test the US president. But which Chávez will show up: a dignified, statesmanlike gentleman in an Armani suit or the red-shirted bully of the public square?
One suspects it will be the latter. Mr. Chávez arrives at the summit fresh off a world tour in which he embraced – literally – some of the world's most sinister leaders, among them Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and Iran's Mohammed Ahmadinejad. He called for dumping the US dollar as the major international reserve currency and praised China as the world's "center of gravity." Back home, he is ruthlessly attempting to decimate his political opposition and cripple the private sector.
Chávez will give Obama the chance to show combative mettle. Standing up to the Venezuelan strongman isn't enough. Obama should seize the initiative and demand that Chávez start working to promote hemispheric cooperation and live up to his responsibilities under the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
The summit won't be easy sailing for the young American president. But it could be productive if he resists the temptation to simply appease neighbors. By taking initiative, Obama could turn the meeting from an occasion to tar the US's international reputation, indulge the tyranny of the Castro brothers, or – in the case of Chávez – launch an unchecked rhetorical broadside against the US into a new start for US-Latin American relations.