Humble Obama unites Latin leaders

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

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

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.

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.

US initiatives are now rivaled by those of others in the region, especially of a rising power like Brazil. South America’s giant displayed its leadership ambitions by unveiling a loan initiative for the region’s most struggling economies – the kind of action only the US could have taken in the past.

Indeed, the gravity of the challenges facing the Americas rules out any stance but humility, some leaders said. The economy threatens to reverse a decade of falling poverty rates across the region. “No one knows with certainty how to get out of this crisis, and that reality makes everybody more humble and less arrogant,” said Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

Obama’s emphasis on shared responsibility and mutual interests aims at moving US relations with the region beyond emotions – whether positive or negative, some US officials said.

“Relationships depend on more than smiles and handshakes,” White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers told reporters.

Some in Washington would prefer that the president end some of his relationships there. Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada told CNN: "When you're talking about the prestige of the United States and the presidency of the United States, you have to be careful who you're seen joking around with," referring to Chávez. Obama, for his part, said there is much about Chávez to which he objects.

Obama touts 'soft power'

But Obama's olive branches to America's enemies did not end with handshakes. He indirectly praised Cuba, saying that its good image in the region results from the legions of doctors it sends to other Latin countries to tend the poor. "It's a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence.”

To advance US interests, “not just here in the hemisphere but around the world,” Obama said the US must “recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power.”

But he cautioned that progress “won’t happen overnight, adding that “efforts may be strained at times because of disagreements.”

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