Skepticism Waits South of the Border

MEXICO CITY— On his recent trip across the Atlantic, President Barack Obama was greeted enthusiastically by European leaders just glad that he wasn’t a president named Bush.

This week in Latin America, Obama will find a far more skeptical audience among leaders in this newly assertive region. It’s a group that will take some convincing that this time, a new American president will stay engaged.

Without the Spanish-speaking, governor-of-a-border-state cachet that George W. Bush initially brought to the table, Obama will rely on a hefty dose of show-don’t-tell diplomacy to prove his administration will be an active ally.

It’s an approach his aides say he laid groundwork for in advance of his arrival in Mexico City Thursday, a move that makes a statement in itself. Obama will be the first U.S. president in 13 years to travel to the country’s capital city.

But despite recent Latin American policy announcements and diplomatic overtures, Obama has been slow on some fronts, making his job over the next few days even more difficult.

He has not appointed a special envoy to the Americas as promised, for example, even though he’s named envoys to several other parts of the world, including Sudan.

“He does have a lot of skepticism to overcome because of the history of past presidents saying they were going to have a close relationship, and events taking over,” said a source close to the White House. “And in the first two and a half months Obama has been slow to focus on the region.”

The White House recently tried to change that. This week Obama named a “border czar” to tackle drug-related violence and immigration issues regarding Mexico, and ordered the most significant changes to U.S.-Cuba policy in decades. And in advance of his Latin America visit, Obama dispatched his vice president, his secretaries of State and Homeland Security and his attorney general to the region.

“There has been a real effort at consultation and pre-summit diplomacy,” said Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, who is leading the administration’s preparations for the Summit of the Americas. “This legitimately can be seen as a new beginning.”

Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton also promised new beginnings, only to have their attention to the region drift. But with all that Obama has on his plate – an economic crisis and two wars – his administration insists it’s serious about engaging Latin America.

And even if it wasn’t, today’s Latin America is not necessarily a region any U.S. president could afford to ignore.

Take Mexico: The surge of violence among drug cartels is bringing bloodshed dangerously close to the U.S. border, making it a top priority when Obama meets with Mexican President Felipe Calderon Thursday.

“Could we ignore what’s happening with Mexico and muddle through? Well, yeah, but not for long,” said the source close to the White House. “It’s a much greater risk for Obama to push it off than it has been for past presidents.”

The economy also will be a pressing issue in Obama and Calderon’s meeting, as the U.S. economic downturn has hurt Mexico more than other countries in the region.

“Mexico is in a difficult period right now, and part of the task of President Obama’s presence will be to reassure Mexicans of U.S. support and cooperation on economic trade and security issues,” Peter DeShazo, director of the Center for Strategic International Studies’ Americas program recently told reporters.

The White House’s decision to make a separate, overnight trip to Mexico in advance of the summit is intended to send a strong message. And the meaning is not lost on Mexicans that Obama is coming to their capital, where kidnappings of foreigners have become a lucrative business.

“It's designed to send a very clear signal to our friends in Mexico City that we have a series of shared challenges as it relates to the economy, as it relates to security, insecurity, the threat of violence, and the impact of drug trafficking on both our countries,” said Denis McDonough, the National Security Council’s director for strategic communications, said in a briefing for reporters.

Beyond Mexico, Obama faces a new kind of Latin America when he arrives in Trinidad and Tobago on Friday for the fifth Summit of the Americas.

The economic crisis will be front and center at the two-day summit, along with energy and security issues.

Prior to the economic downturn, Latin America enjoyed a period of growth. Many countries now have low debt levels and are much more financially viable than in the past. Brazil, in particular, has emerged as a global power.

“These are countries that are much more assertive of themselves,” Luis Alberto Moreno, president, Inter-American Development Bank, said during a recent Council on Foreign Relations forum.

But now their economies are being hurt by the U.S. recession – as residents there see a steep decline in money immigrants in the U.S. send back to family members in their home countries, and a drop in demand for manufactured goods and exports

While trade is not expected to come up at the summit in a substantial way, Obama will propose an energy partnership with the Americas.

Obama can also expect leaders from the region to challenge him directly on issues such as Cuba, which is not officially on the summit’s agenda.

Fidel Castro’s close friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, held his own pre-summit meeting this week with a handful of Latin American leaders. Chavez – who once called Bush a “devil” that “smells like sulfur” and said in January that Obama has “the same stench” – is the leader most likely to bring theatrics to Trinidad and Tobago.

Some observers believe Obama will handle Chavez diplomatically – that he can’t be open to talks with Iran and not be open to Venezuela.

Still, the skepticism will be intense, especially after Clinton, then Bush started off with the best intentions.

Clinton convened the first Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994 and took up the idea of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. But by his second term, Clinton’s focus was elsewhere – on Kosovo and the legal battle over Monica Lewinsky.

Bush sought to forge a close relationship with Mexico from the start of his presidency. Less than a month in office, he traveled to the country to meet with President Vicente Fox in a meeting Mexicans affectionately called it the “Cowboy Summit.” But by Bush’s second term, the United States was fighting two wars overseas, U.S. relations with Mexico had soured, and Fox dubbed Bush a “windshield cowboy.”
The impression left in Latin America was that the United States is a nation of empty promises.

“The perception coming up from the south [is] that in recent years the United States has turned its attention elsewhere, has neglected its relationships in this part of the world,” said Davidow, who also served under Bush.

It’s a “strongly felt perception” that “the president has been counteracting since even before he took office,” Davidow added. “And I think this summit will give him the opportunity to meet with all the heads of state, listen to them, exchange views, and come away with new ideas, both ones that he's developed and ones that he's heard.”

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