Latin American Program in the News: Support, But Some Disappointment, as Obama Heads to Americas Summit

National Journal, 4/13/12


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With the formal agenda a mere shadow of what was tackled at the first of these meetings when President Clinton started the exercise in hemispheric summitry in Miami in 1994, Obama and his fellow presidents officially will be talking about the region’s ongoing battle with narco-violence, drug policy, disaster response, poverty, and inequality. Unofficially, they will be talking about Cuba’s future and pressing Obama for details about his campaign.

“All the Latin American leaders are going to want to know what is going to happen in the United States,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center. “Is Obama likely to be reelected? That is a legitimate question in everybody’s mind.”

Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at Wilson, said it is no secret that most of the leaders who will be in Cartagena are “secretly cheering and hoping that the positive trends for President Obama in terms of the election, that they continue. Most of the leaders there would like to see President Obama reelected. That is a sentiment widely shared among the leaders.” That presents a challenge, though, because Arnson said “there is pretty broad disappointment” with Obama’s “lack of attention” to the region. It forces the leaders to differentiate between Obama personally and his policies.

“Latin American leaders know that while the Obama administration is not very popular in the region, President Obama is,” said Andrew Selee, who heads Wilson’s Mexico Institute. “President Obama remains highly popular among many average citizens in the region. He continues to be an engaging figure, an important symbolic figure as the first African-American president of the United States.

As a result, it is considered highly unlikely that any of the other leaders will do anything reminiscent of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’ effort to embarrass Obama at the most recent Summit of Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. At the time, the newly elected Obama had signaled that he wanted a friendlier relationship with Chavez. But the Venezuelan strongman patted him on the shoulder and gave him a copy of a polemical book popular with leftists because it blamed the woes of Latin America on the imperialism of the United States and Europe.

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The discussion presents a diplomatic challenge to Obama, who has signaled that “legalization is not viable from the U.S. point of view,” but has also “left the door open for a broader discussion” as a courtesy to Santos, according to Eric Olson, a senior associate at Wilson’s Mexico Center.

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