Race a Dominant Theme at Summit

Gathered for a group portrait of hemispheric leaders are, from left, President Obama, El Salvador's Elias Antonio Saca, Uruguay's Tabaré Vázquez, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Chile's Michelle Bachelet.
Gathered for a group portrait of hemispheric leaders are, from left, President Obama, El Salvador's Elias Antonio Saca, Uruguay's Tabaré Vázquez, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Chile's Michelle Bachelet. (By Andres Leighton -- Associated Press)

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, April 18 -- In presenting himself at a summit here as an equal partner to Latin America, President Obama is drawing on his race as evidence of U.S. social progress and of his own affinity for the region's poor.

Race occupies a far larger and more troubled place in Latin American politics than it does in Europe, where Obama rarely mentioned his ethnic background this month during his first overseas trip as president.

He is doing so more often here at the Summit of the Americas, in part to push an agenda that, among other issues, seeks to address the region's income disparity between rich and poor, the widest in the world.

In talking about his race and the backgrounds of his counterparts, Obama is associating himself more closely than his predecessors did with Latin America's indigenous, black and mixed-race underclass, which has long identified the United States with economic policies that benefit the elite of European descent far more than them.

The approach has helped to reduce, though not eliminate, the expected political strife between Obama and such populist leaders as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of his country.

Those men explicitly mentioned Obama's race in a closed-door meeting Saturday as a sign that U.S. policy toward the region may change, according to several U.S. and Latin American officials who attended.

President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, a former union leader and political prisoner, and President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, one of the hemisphere's two elected female leaders, said in a separate private meeting Saturday that the region's diversity should be more fully appreciated with the presence of the first black U.S. president.

"The president put it on the table very explicitly" at the opening ceremony, said a senior Obama administration official who participates in closed-door meetings with the president. "Inequity in this hemisphere is extreme, and a hemisphere blessed with a lot of resources should not be suffering the way it is. Race is a part of that in many cases."

'Part of Who He Is'

The meeting rooms and hallways of the seaside hotel where the summit is taking place showcase an array of ethnicities -- black delegations of the Caribbean; indigenous representatives of some Andean nations; whites, blacks and Latinos from the United States and Canada.

In his opening speech, Obama said, "We have to stand up against any force that separates any of our people from that story of liberty -- whether it's crushing poverty or corrosive corruption; social exclusion or persistent racism or discrimination.

"Here in this room, and on this dais, we see the diversity of the Americas," Obama said. "Every one of our nations has a right to follow its own path."

In recent decades, the left represented by Chávez, Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, who delivered a speech highly critical of the United States on opening night, has been lifted by an anti-American populism held most strongly by indigenous and mixed-race populations.


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