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President Obama’s weak message to Latin America

THOUGH IT was inevitable that it would be overshadowed by events elsewhere in the world, we thought President Obama was right to go ahead with his tour of Latin America. To cancel the trip only would have strengthened the view that, as Mr. Obama put it, “there have been times when the United States took this region for granted.” And there is, in fact, much to be done in and with Latin American nations, from strengthening U.S. partnerships with some key countries to standing up to the dismantling of democracy and violations of human rights in others.

Unfortunately, while Mr. Obama took the time to travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, his effort to advance this agenda ranged from weak to nonexistent. In Brazil and Chile, the president rightly heaped praise on those countries’ democratic and economic development. He made a strong public pitch for partnership between the United States and South America’s emerging power, saying “the United States doesn’t simply recognize Brazil’s rise, we suppport it enthusiastically.”

Yet when it came to issues of particular concern to Brazilians or other Latin Americans, the president had little to offer. Instead he delivered warmed-over restatements of his broad positions on immigration and trade, without mentioning any meaningful new measures. He said his administration “has intensified our efforts to move forward on trade agreements with Panama and Colombia,” but he did not visit either country and offered no timetable for submitting those deals to Congress.

Most curious was Mr. Obama’s decision to simply ignore the fact that in large parts of Latin America, the “shared values” that he said bind the hemisphere are being trampled. In a speech directed to the region that he delivered in Santiago, the president declared that “today, Latin America is democratic” — even though rulers in a number of countries are shutting down media, eliminating judicial independence and rigging elections. He said “Latin America is contributing to global prosperity and security,” even though many of those same rulers are forging ties with Iran and have been defending the regime of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi.

Mr. Obama mentioned the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which nominally binds the governments of the hemisphere to act against those who commit political abuses, and said “we have to speak out when we see those principles violated.” Yet he himself did not speak out. Not once during his tour did he mention Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador or Bolivia or their increasingly autocratic rulers.

The president did bring up the people of Cuba, who, he said, “are entitled to the same freedom and liberty as everyone else in this hemisphere.” But Cuba, as he pointed out, has been stuck in “this history that’s now lasted for longer than I’ve been alive.” Venezuela and Nicaragua, on the other hand, are teetering between the democracies they had a decade ago and the autocracies their current leaders hope to install. By failing to discuss those fateful struggles, Mr. Obama did a great disservice to those Latin Americans who are fighting to save freedom in their countries, at great personal risk.

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