Analysis: Obama met a more assertive neighborhood

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 3:37 PM

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Barack Obama went to Latin America to project a new, softer image of U.S. regional influence based on common bonds. "We are all Americans," he declared. He leaves behind nations delighted by the attention but determined to use their growing economic voice their own way.

A day after Obama left Brazil and two days after NATO allies began enforcing a U.S. backed no-fly zone over Libya, the government of President Dilma Rousseff called for a cease-fire.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera pressed Obama to complete pending trade deals with Panama and Colombia. And in an interview with The Associated Press the day after Obama's departure from the Chilean capital, Pinera said he would request U.S. intelligence documents related to human rights violations during the Pinochet dictatorship - an uncomfortable chapter for the United States because it backed his regime.

The visits to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador illustrate the new politics of the hemisphere - more economically viable, more democratic, with a growing global footprint and a perspective that will not always hew to the wishes of its giant neighbor to the north.

American financial aid does not carry as much influence as it once may have - though fiscal pressures on the U.S. make that aid unlikely anyway. The strongest leverage the United States has is forging relationships based on mutual commercial or security interests. But Obama knows Latin America has heard pledges for new regional alliances before, only to see them fizzle.

"Words are easy, and I know that there have been times where perhaps the United States took this region for granted," Obama said in Santiago.

Indeed, many in Latin America thought his trip was long overdue. But Obama leaves behind good will in his host countries and leaders buoyed by a sense that his visit brought them and their countries a degree of international validation.

By that measure, the trip ends on a successful note. Obama went to the region with little anticipation of signing grand agreements or achieving bilateral breakthroughs.

"What President Obama proposed to us yesterday was something Chile has been assuming for a long time now - a different relationship, to move from handouts to collaboration, from an unequal vertical relationship to a relationship of equals, horizontal," Pinera said in his interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday.

For Obama, the timing of the trip awkwardly coincided with American forces dropping bombs and firing missiles at Libya. Questions about Libya dogged Obama at every stop.

The White House maintains that simply showing up can do much to build bridges. Obama generally stuck to his itinerary despite the demands of the attack on Libya, helping mitigate any lingering irritation that he had put off the visit for too long.

It's an approach the White House under new political adviser David Plouffe has employed domestically as well, sending Obama on weekly visits to states to make his case on domestic topics even as national and international issues overwhelm them.

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