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President Obama Meets the Americas

Obama's mission at the Summit of the Americas should be to listen to other leaders and communicate a commitment to environmental sustainability and energy, writes Stephanie Miller.

President Barack Obama walks out the Oval Office with Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, right, during their meeting at the White House in Washington, March 14, 2009. Obama heads to Trinidad and Tobago this week for the Summit of the Americas. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama walks out the Oval Office with Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, right, during their meeting at the White House in Washington, March 14, 2009. Obama heads to Trinidad and Tobago this week for the Summit of the Americas. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama’s arrival at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago later this week will be his first opportunity to meet and address 33 other heads of state from the Americas. This is an important moment for the president to set the tone of his administration’s policy toward the region, as well as reengage with a region that was largely missing from the Bush administration’s foreign policy radar screen.

Exactly how to reengage, however, is not entirely clear. Latin America is a different place than the one the Bush administration hoped to engage with in 2000. After a series of missteps and relative inattention by the Bush administration throughout its eight years in office, Latin America has emerged stronger and more self-reliant. Today, countries such as Brazil are emerging with greater international prominence and influence and no longer look to the United States to dictate terms of cooperation and engagement. At the same time, leaders of other countries—most prominently the presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia—sometimes seek to directly challenge the United States.

As a result, President Obama enters the summit with several policy challenges and opportunities on the horizon. Capitalizing on the opportunities while avoiding potential pitfalls will be the main task for him and his Latin America policy team. Managing that balancing act will require that he and his team keep the focus of the summit on its stated purpose this year—energy security and environmental sustainability—but remain open to substantive policy discussions on other issues so long as these other topics are not used by knee-jerk critics of the United States to score political points at the expense of real progress.

This may not be easy to do. Latin America and the Caribbean have enjoyed over a decade of deepening democratic processes, economic growth that has brought millions of people out of poverty, and have created several regional initiatives demonstrating a willingness and ability to address critical issues without the help of the United States. But as President Obama said in a campaign speech in Miami in May of 2008, “what is good for the people of the Americas is [also] good for the United States.” Thus, his chief mission when he arrives at the summit will be to listen to what the hemisphere believes is good for its people and communicate how the United States will be an engaged and helpful partner to the rest of the Americas.

Indeed, a large amount of attention at the summit will be dedicated to the current global economic downturn. During Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s trip to Washington in March, Obama and Lula made it clear that the hemisphere must work to avoid protectionism. The stumbling blocks here for the Obama administration are the uncompleted ratification of two bilateral free trade agreements signed by the United States and Panama and Colombia. Then there is Brazil’s biggest grievance with the United States—the tariff placed on Brazilian sugar ethanol imported into the United States—which remains unresolved after the two heads of state first met. President Obama will have to ensure the summit is not consumed by these issues if any consensus is to be made on how to confront the key issues slated for discussion—energy security and environmental sustainability.

Another challenge looming for the administration as it approaches the summit are U.S. relations with several countries that have adopted an increasingly confrontational attitude toward the United States. Three of these countries have expelled top U.S. diplomats in the past year. Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez threw out U.S. ambassadors assigned to both countries, and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa expelled two top U.S. embassy officials from Quito. Morales has also barred numerous U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Agency for International Development officials from operating in Bolivia’s territory, claiming that the United States was using these agencies to conspire with Morales’ political opposition.

Because the summit will mark the first time President Obama meets with these leaders, many will be looking to see if anything can be intimated from gestures, conversations, or statements made by either side to suggest heightened tensions. But regardless of any political or ideological differences the U.S. government may have with Presidents Chávez, Morales, Correa, and Nicaragua’s leftist President Daniel Ortega, it is important that the Obama administration not allow the summit to focus on them. Instead, President Obama must focus the forum on ways the countries of the Americas can pursue better relations and heightened cooperation on issues of mutual concern. To have the summit stage dominated by a discordant element of U.S. relations with the hemisphere would undermine the message of Inter-American cooperation at the heart of the summit process. Indeed, the Obama administration’s recent fulfillment of a campaign promise to remove all restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittance sending to Cuba is trying to do just that. Announcing the policy change right before the summit can be seen as a way to avoid loud expressions of disagreement over the United States’ policy toward Cuba from potentially stealing the summit microphone on hemispheric cooperation.

Amid these challenges, however, lies an opportunity for the Obama administration to signal a shift in U.S. relations with the hemisphere. President Obama wants to promote an “Energy Partnership for the Americas.” Establishing exactly what that means and how the Obama administration intends to pursue the partnership is something the president should avidly pursue at the summit.

Brazil’s cooperation in this energy partnership is paramount. Brazil has voiced some initial skepticism, which is why President Obama’s team must convince Brazil and the countries of the Americas that the United States is serious about tackling climate change domestically and in cooperation with the international community—removing tariffs on Brazilian ethanol entering the United States would be a good place to start—and establish why his “Energy Partnership for the Americas” is in the interest of countries throughout the hemisphere.

A plethora of other issues connect the United States to its hemispheric neighbors, such as immigration, financial flows, trade, and security. Using the summit to delve more deeply into all of them, however, would not only be ineffective but also undermine the important theme of the summit. Listening to its hemispheric partners and collaborating to find creative solutions to the twin problems of energy security and environmental sustainability would be the best signal that the Obama administration understands the changed political landscape of the hemisphere and sees it as an opportunity to reengage with the region in a way that fosters true cooperation and mutual respect.

Read more about the Center’s policy recommendations and analysis of U.S.-Latin American relations at the Americas Project page on our website.

Stephanie Miller is currently a consultant on U.S.-Latin American relations and was formerly the Research Associate for the Americas Project on the National Security Team at American Progress.

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