december coverIn The Bullring

Against the consuming backdrop of a global economic crisis, President Barack Obama’s popularity and the desire of Latin American leaders to re-engage with Washington has created an opportunity to bury old resentments and usher in a new era of mutual respect. The challenge is whether Obama can afford to spend the time and effort to capitalize on this unique moment in history.

“We know Latin America and the Caribbean is not a priority,” said Ambassador Heraldo Muñoz, Chile’s representative to the United Nations.

But there is a hunger in Latin America for a new relationship with the United States. Although the United States will still continue to have a disproportionate amount of influence in the hemisphere, Latin American leaders say they hope Obama breaks with the past by advancing common interests instead of forcing Latin nations to bow to U.S. concerns.

“”There is a desire to re-engage after a bad period,” Munoz said. “I think it’s a new start, a chance we haven’t had [for good relations] since the Kennedy administration.”

During the Bush years, while the U.S. ignored its southern neighbors to focus on terrorism, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other global problems, Latin America underwent a peaceful transformation. Autocratic “caudillos,” the transfer of power through military coups and revolts by leftist guerillas are fast becoming a thing of the past in the region.

“While our gaze was occupied elsewhere, the region changed. Our policy has to change too,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and former State Department official.

Obama’s first appereance in the Latin American bullring was a stop in Mexico City on the way to the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Grappling with the complexities of a region tied to the U.S. by history and trade is an early test of his presidency. Obama’s introduction to Latin America is also challenged by the global financial crisis, which is eroding recent economic gains in the region.

“There are certain elements of resentment,” said Muñoz at a pre-summit conference. “We did not cause this crisis but we are going to feel the impact.”

The summit in Trinidad’s Port-of-Spain represented Obama’s debut and his first foray into Latin American policy. Farnsworth described Obama’s message as, “We want to be responsible partners. … The days of U.S. dominance are diminishing.”

During Bush’s presidency, Latin America’s long-endangered middle class grew and was strengthened as the economies of Latin nations prospered. “Latin America has matured,” Farnsworth said. Much of that growth was fueled by increased demand for its commodities from China and other trade partners. Now, this more sophisticated Latin America is eager to engage with black U.S. president who is a symbol that his nation’s political system has also matured. Muñoz notes that Obama, the son of an African immigrant, is a tremendously popular symbol of change in Latin America.

“If Obama and [Vice President] Joe Biden had run in Latin America, they would have gotten 90 percent of the vote,” Muñoz said.

Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, said Obama’s lack of experience in Latin American affairs may even be an asset. Bush, as a former Texas governor, touted himself as an expert on Latin America, especially Mexico. He jumped at any opportunity to speak his peculiar form of Spanish (he loved introducing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Latin leaders as Señorita Arroz). Because Bush campaigned on familiarity with Latin American affairs, saying he’d use it to promote greater trade in the hemisphere and reform U.S. immigration laws, he was roundly criticized when he fell short of his goals. Bush was also constrained by his father’s legacy there, which included sending American troops into Panama to overthrow the corrupt government of General Manuel Noriega. But Obama approaches Latin America with a clean slate.

“There’s an advantage in that [Obama] doesn’t have baggage,” Shifter said. “He brings in a fresh perspective.”

The escalating violence in Mexico unleashed by drug traffickers is an early test of the new president. Drug-fueled violence threatens to destabilize the government of President Felipe Calderon and challenges the security of the United State’s long border with Mexico. Wars among Mexico’s drug cartels, prompted by a government crackdown on their activities and fueled by semi-automatic weapons smuggled from the United States, have resulted in grisly murders in border towns and a rash of kidnappings in Phoenix and other American towns. Panicked border-state governors have asked Obama for National Guard troops to help combat the violence that has spilled across the Rio Grande.

In response, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s indicated the Obama administration may be willing to help as a “responsible partner” during her March visit to Mexico. In her meeting with Calderon, Clinton said the United States shared the blame for Mexico’s problems---a welcome assessment shared by Mexican officials. “The demand for illegal drugs is what keeps these guys in business. And it’s a multi-billion-dollar, $25-plus billion industry,” Clinton said of the U.S. market for drugs.” She also said the United States also shared responsibility for the gun-smuggling, “so we’ve got to help out here.”

Obama may not give in to Calderon’s demand for billions of dollars in new aid matching the money Americans spend on drugs bought from Mexican cartels. But the president promised to increase U.S. aid to Mexico and send technology and manpower to the border and help Calderon battle the cartels. The administration is also seeking $80 million from Congress to help Mexico buy Blackhawk helicopters and is expected to seek more Mexican aid money from Capitol Hill.

Obama will face other stiff challenges in the hemisphere. For instance, Latin American nations are likely to increase their protests against what they view is U.S. protectionist policies. One early indication of that is Mexico’s furor at U.S. restrictions on Mexican trucking. To meet this, Obama will need to make allies of some of the new leaders who have emerged during Latin America’s recent political renaissance. The growth of a Latin American middle class increased the ranks of politically savvy voters who have ushered in a number of left-leaning leaders in democratic elections.Those leaders, who in the past would be viewed by U.S. policymakers as dangerous leftists, could now become some of Obama’s key allies.

The most important is Inácio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil and founder of that nation’s Workers’ Party. In recognition that Lula, 63, is emerging as the most influential political figure in Latin America, he was the first Latin American leader to be invited to the White House. In that March visit, Obama pressed Lula about Brazil’s large bio fuels industry, based largely on sugar cane. Lula sought better U.S. relations in the region, especially with traditional Washington foes Cuba and Venezuela. He also invited Obama to visit Brazil, an invitation the new president accepted.

Lula is a pragmatic leftist and one of the few Latin American leaders who come from the working class. He had little formal education and did not read until he was 10 years old. At age 12 he got his first job as a shoe shine boy and later became a metal worker and labor activist. Lula is emerging as the most influential political leader in Latin America. He is already considered a counterweight to Venezuela’s autocratic Hugo Chavez, whose blistering anti-Americanism is a throwback to an earlier era, when populist leaders condemned unpopular U.S. policies in the hemisphere to bolster support.

“A relationship with Lula is a tremendous boost,” said Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas. “It shows that we have a partner of consequence in Latin America and it works for Brazil because it fulfills Lula’s ambitions as a leader in the hemisphere.”

Although Lula put the strengthening and expansion of social programs at the top of his agenda, he moderated many of his leftist stances after assuming office in 2003, choosing a reformist line instead that resulted in new retirement, tax, labor and judicial laws. Brazil’s economy flourished and the country changed from a creditor to lender nation thanks to Lula’s market-based reforms. But the global financial crisis prompted strong---and divisive---comments from the Brazilian leader. At a joint press conference in March with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Lula said white, blue-eyed bankers are entirely to blame for the world financial crisis that has disproportionately hurt black and indigenous people.

Not only has the global recession caused the economies of Latin American nations to falter, it has hurt their tourism industry and cut into the millions of remittance dollars immigrants send home. On a visit to Chile and Costa Rica before the Port-of-Spain summit, Vice President Biden jokingly said of Lula: “I thought it was we Irish who spoke too much.” But Biden was more serious in countering Lula’s assertion at a meeting of Latin leaders in Chile that free market policies were to blame for the world-wide recession.

“A free market still needs to be able to function,” he said. “But we have to save the markets from free marketeers right now.” Biden defended the Obama Administration’s policies to combat the recession in the U.S., a policy that includes a multi-billion bailout of financial institutions and a massive spending bill. But he told Latin American leaders “what we’re doing domestically I’m not suggesting is the answer for any one of you. That’s for you to decide.”

Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Obama wants to establish a relationship with the hemisphere “based on mutual respect.” He said the president will continue to reassure leaders that what happened on Wall Street was due to “a lack of regulation in the past” and that “financial regulations are in place so it never happens again.”

“The president is prepared to use a markedly different tone with Latin America,” Hammer said. “Those who want to be partners with the United States will be able to do so on issues of common interest and those who have differences with the United States will be able to express them---but hopefully in a respectful way. Sometimes there will be a meeting of the minds, sometimes there won’t be.”

Jeffrey Davidow, Obama’s adviser to the Summit to the Americas, said the U.S. doesn’t have all the answers. “For the Obama administration, there’s a recognition that Latin America has changed,” said Davidow, a veteran U.S. diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Venezuela. “There’s a greater need to approach the region with a willingness to cooperate.”

Some of Obama’s new allies in the region could include Michelle Bachelet, the 57-year-old president of Chile and former pediatrician and Peruvian President Alan Garcia, 59, a leftist radical elected president in 1985 who was unseated in a coup and who dramatically moderated his views when he returned to political power in 2006.

As an indication on how much things have changed, Obama may also be able to forge a relationship with new Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, a former journalist who belongs to the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, a Socialist Party that was formerly a guerilla movement opposed by the United States. In a phone call to congratulate Funes on the night of the Salvadoran elections, Obama said the two countries could work together on issues of mutual interest, including economic growth, poverty, energy cooperation and security.Obama can already count on some of the more conservative leaders in the region, including Calderon, who belongs to Mexico’s National Action Party, or PAN, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won the Nobel Prize for his role in ending Central American wars in the 1980s.

But the U.S. still has adversaries in the region. Cuba’s Fidel and Raul Castro will continue to defy the United State’s calls for democratic change.Obama has already loosened some of Bush’s embargo tightening measures, relaxing travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans visiting family on the island and allowing other Americans to travel to Cuba for cultural, academic and other reasons. Obama is also expected to reinstate bi-annual migration talks with Cuba that will result in greater cooperation in drug interdiction and other issues, and may accede to OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza’s call that Cuba be allowed to rejoin the OAS after a 47-year absence (although Cuba may not find it in its best interest to do so). But Obama will most likely stop short of doing what Latin American leaders have long urged the U.S. to do---lift the almost 50 year old embargo.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who once called Bush “the devil,” will also continue his bombastic attacks against the United States.But falling oil prices have curbed Chavez’s ability to buy influence in the region and Obama’s appeal to Venezuelan voters blunts Chavez’s attacks. Pedro Burelli, a former member of the Executive Board of Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, and an analyst of Venezuela-U.S. relations, said Obama should keep his trademark cool and ignore Chavez’ s vitriol. Bush, he pointed out, never even referred to the Venezuelan leader by name.

“Obama should talk to Cuba because it’s a historical monkey on the United States’ back. He should also talk to Iran. But he should keep this guy [Chavez] out,” Burelli said. “Venezuela is irrelevant to the United States at this point in time.” Even though the United States depends on Venezuela for much of its imported oil, Chavez isn’t likely to shut off that flow because the United States is his main export market, Burelli said.

Stephanie Miller, a Latin American analyst at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that has provided Obama with so many appointees it’s considered a farm team for the administration, agreed that the best way to deal with Chavez is to ignore him. ”He has an anti-American rhetoric that isn’t helpful, but dealing with it in a confrontational way also isn’t helpful,” she said.

Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, is credited with empowering his nation’s poor, Indian population. But he presents Obama with another problem. Morales allied his nation to Venezuela and Cuba, nationalized key industries (provoking a flight of foreign investors and wealthy Bolivians), and expelled the U.S. ambassador for allegedly inciting opposition protests. In reaction, the U.S. forced American Peace Corps volunteers to leave the impoverished nation.

“Nobody questions his legitimacy,” said Farnsworth. “But it’s tough to show how you can develop the poorest nation in South America by kicking out everybody who has money.” Farnsworth said he’s confident Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have the will and skills needed to repair frayed relations with Latin America. But he’s concerned the president will be forced to put Latin American concerns on the back burner, like his predecessors did, because of the economic crisis.

“After the summit in Trinidad, the president’s political guys and scheduling office may be saying, ‘Okay, you’ve spent a lot of time on Latin America, now it’s time for other things’,” Farnsworth said.

Time will tell, but Latin Americans have a long memory when it comes to the U.S..

Ana Radelat lives near Washington, D.C. and writes about Latin America, among other things.