By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 5, 2010; A06
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Since last month's earthquake, this country has been deluged with American assistance. An estimated 6,500 troops are here, along with scores of U.S.-based nonprofit groups. Medics treat the wounded, and soldiers provide security for food deliveries.
"We have the ability to do it, and we're doing it, so it feels good," said Army Lt. Roger Leonhart, who found himself Wednesday in Port-au-Prince's poorest shantytown, even though he had been training for deployment to Afghanistan.
Although the mission is undoubtedly a humanitarian one, it has also presented the Obama administration with a political opportunity. With Latin America closely following relief efforts, a successful mission -- larger, more expensive and more complex than that of any other country -- could advance U.S. diplomacy in a region long suspicious of U.S. intentions, say former diplomats and political analysts who track politics here.
"I think that the United States will look very magnanimous. We offer the security, the controllers of the airport, upgrading so you can have 300 flights a day instead of 20 or 30," said Cresencio Arcos, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras and now a senior adviser at the National Defense University's Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington.
"Haiti is good for the United States, to show its humanitarian side," he said. "It's perfect for this administration, which is Democratic and liberal."
Others are less welcoming of the U.S. role in Haiti. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, as well as his allies in Nicaragua and Bolivia, say U.S. troops are occupying Haiti. "Thousands of men are disembarking in Haiti as if it were a war," Chávez said in a recent speech.
President Obama has sought to avoid such hostility. Shortly after taking office, he promised a new beginning with Latin America, saying there would be "no senior or junior partner" in the United States' relationship with the region. He called Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva "my man," marveling at the former factory worker's poll numbers, and at a summit, he shook hands with Chávez, who gives frequent speeches warning of U.S. plots aimed at dislodging Latin American leaders.
In a poll conducted late last year by Latinobarometro, a Chilean company that measures political attitudes in 18 countries, Obama had a 71 percent approval rate, far surpassing that of President George W. Bush, who was widely criticized in the region.
Still, tensions and distrust have marked the Obama administration's relationships with both friend and rival, particularly over Washington's failed efforts to reinstall Manuel Zelaya to the Honduran presidency and the disclosure that the United States planned to expand its presence at several Colombian military bases. There has also been friction over the continued operation of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and even over U.S. troops in Iraq, issues that generated widespread discontent with the Bush administration.
Michael Shifter, a policy analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said long-standing disputes between the United States and Latin American countries remain unsettled as the Obama administration focuses on economic troubles and far-flung wars. The State Department did not have its top Latin American diplomat, Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, in place until November.
"Today, signs of frustration are unmistakable in Washington and in many Latin American capitals, despite Obama's immense personal appeal," Shifter wrote in a recent essay in Current History. In an interview, he said Washington could get a boost with its response to Haiti.
In Haiti, the United States has a hospital ship with 1,000 beds offshore and 6,500 troops on the ground handing out food, clearing debris and providing other forms of assistance. Fundraising for Haitian relief is being spearheaded by two former presidents, Bush and Bill Clinton, and their role, the Obama administration says, underscores the importance placed on helping Haiti.
Some critics, nonetheless, have faulted the United States for its handling of the relief effort.
Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington policy group critical of U.S. motives in Latin America, said some of Chávez's rhetoric has been "overkill." But he said other critics -- including relief officials from France and Italy -- had been justified in criticizing the U.S. military for diverting Haiti-bound flights. He said that could cost the United States.
"I just don't see this as a clear win for Washington," Birns said. "Everyone likes the idea of children being pulled from the rubble, but there isn't enough of that to counter the memories of the airport thing."
People across the region also have an ingrained suspicion about the U.S. military, which has intervened in Haiti and several other countries in the past decade. Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Council of the Americas, a business group in New York, said the Obama administration must consider how Haitians and others might view a long-term deployment.
"This has to be a multilateral effort, and it has to be one that scales back the U.S. military presence and places the operations under a multilateral umbrella," he said.
In Cite Soleil, the slum where food was being handed out, Lt. Leonhart raised an eyebrow in surprise when he heard that not everyone appreciated the U.S. effort. He said he had not considered how the relief effort could help Washington's image.
"Hopefully, people realize and appreciate that, at the end of the day, we're here for the Haitians," he said.