By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
President Obama plans to take his message of partnership to Latin America and the Caribbean this week, but he will face a group of leaders far less forgiving than their European counterparts were about the United States' central role in the global financial crisis.
Over the past five years, the region has posted the fastest economic growth rates in the world, lifting millions of Latin Americans out of poverty. Now, those gains are threatened by a downturn that, as Inter-American Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno said, "is the hemisphere's first economic crisis not made in Latin America."
At the fifth Summit of the Americas, hosted by Trinidad and Tobago, Obama will encounter several Latin American leaders who have long criticized the economic mix of free trade, privatization and public-debt reduction known as "the Washington consensus." Although Obama will signal the same change in tone and approach from the Bush administration that he delivered to Europe, his audience will be different in its politics and personality.
Among the leaders he will meet for the first time is Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who used the week before the summit to visit China, Iran and Cuba, in part to celebrate what he said was the end of American financial hegemony. Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader who battled the U.S.-sponsored contra insurgency through the 1980s, will be there. So will Evo Morales of Bolivia, the only president to have expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from his country.
While the summit's final declaration has been negotiated for nearly a year, the hemisphere's 34 democratically elected leaders will meet in an open forum to discuss the document, some of which was drafted before the financial crash last fall. Many of the region's economies are reliant on exports, now slumping, while some of the poorest countries have seen a sharp decline in remittances from the United States that provide their economic lifeblood.
"You have to be willing to accept that Latin Americans, who are experts in crisis after creating many of their own, will say 'We didn't create this one,' " José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said at a recent forum sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Canadian Foundation for the Americas. "These are presidents, heads of state. . . . But we're going to have some hard things to say."
The summit, characterized by sharp dissension in the past, will also offer preview of a contentious political year in Latin America. Four countries will hold presidential elections in the next eight months amid rising poverty caused by what many in the region see as U.S. economic irresponsibility after decades when that criticism flowed from north to south.
"The temptation to run against Washington will be very powerful," Moreno said.
In Latin America, Obama has a more bitter history to overcome than in Europe. Past U.S. administrations have intervened to oppose insurgencies and unfriendly governments, supported unpopular dictatorships and at other times largely ignored the region. The Obama administration has also inherited policies on trade and toward Cuba that are viewed by many in the region as hypocritical.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a shift in the U.S. approach to Mexico in a visit last month by acknowledging that American drug consumers and guns help drive the narcotics trafficking threatening the Mexican state. Obama has met in Washington with Mexico's President Felipe Calderón and Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
"He is not going to Trinidad with a plan for the hemisphere," said Jeffrey Davidow, a former ambassador to Mexico and Obama's special adviser for the summit. "He is going to Trinidad with the intention of listening, discussing and dealing with his colleagues as partners."
The last summit, held four years ago in Argentina, was dominated by the Bush administration's push for a hemisphere-wide free-trade agreement. The meeting ended without political agreement on trade, highlighting divisions between the United States and Latin America and among the region's leaders themselves.
The Obama administration plans to move ahead with a free-trade agreement with Panama and has based its support for a deal with Colombia on President Álvaro Uribe's ability to better protect labor officials.
"Trade will be a low priority, both because of the legitimate focus on the financial crisis and because of the Democratic Party's position on trade," said Grant Aldonas, a Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser who served as the Commerce Department's undersecretary for international trade in the Bush administration.
The agenda for the summit will include environmental preservation and alternative-energy policy, reviving the dismal economy, reversing the deteriorating public safety situation in several countries and closing a regional gap between rich and poor.
Ricardo Lagos, a former president of Chile, said that "on many items on the global agenda, we will agree."
"But," he added, "we must define the boundaries of our disagreement."
Lagos said Cuba policy could be one of those issues. On Monday, Obama eased restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans to visit or send money to family members on the island and opened the door for American telecommunications companies to expand satellite and cellphone service there.
But Obama has said that he does not intend to lift the 47-year-old trade embargo until the Castro brothers make democratic reforms and improve the government's human rights record. Many Latin Americans think the Obama administration is perpetuating a foreign policy double standard by leaving the embargo in place, given that it is reaching out to Iran and engaging North Korea.
Some of the border-spanning issues, namely the economy, will expose the ideological differences within Latin America's left, split now between European-style social democrats and state-oriented socialists.
One wing is represented by Lula, who has made ethanol fuel development and preservation of the Amazon national priorities. He accused "white, blue-eyed bankers" of causing the global economic crisis, but he also endorsed the Group of 20 major nations' more than $1 trillion effort to increase funding for the International Monetary Fund, extend trade credits and protect the poorest nations from the downturn. He has asked the U.S. administration to lift the import tariff on Brazilian ethanol to help him grow his biofuel industry.
The other is represented by Chávez, a strident socialist who for years has attacked U.S. economic policies as "savage neoliberalism." Chávez's national oil wealth has shrunk significantly with the global decline in demand, and he has had to cut back social programs at the heart of his "revolution."
During a visit to China last week following a stop in Iran, Chávez, who expelled the U.S. ambassador in Caracas last year, said "no one can be ignorant that the center of gravity of the world has moved to Beijing." He went on to declare that "the power of the U.S. empire has collapsed."