PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago – Foreign leaders have jostled to be in pictures with him and pressed for autographs.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who called the last U.S. president the “devil,” gave Barack Obama a book on Latin America and clasped hands with him as if he’d been reunited with an old friend.
Obama proved an able statesman during his trip to Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago that ends today, as he did earlier in the month in Europe. But on both trips he found that personal diplomacy has its limitations – that a leader’s abundant charisma can’t overcome hard national interests or policy disputes marinated in decades of resentment.
Obama came to the summit of 34 democratically elected leaders in the Western Hemisphere hoping to talk about issues that invite consensus, environmental protection and economic recovery among them. Many of his counterparts, however, wanted a commitment to end the U.S.’s 47-year trade embargo against Cuba, a commitment Obama would not make.
“It’s fair to say there’s a disagreement on Cuba,” deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough told reporters Saturday night.
On Obama’s trip, the limits of personal diplomacy were evident on all sides. Obama stopped first in Mexico City, where he repeatedly praised President Felipe Calderon for his “courage” in combating drug cartels. Obama’s stop in Mexico was designed to show solidarity with Calderon.
Calderon made few specific demands of Obama, but he did want the U.S. to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, arguing that since the prohibition lapsed in 2004, the number of these powerful guns showing up in Mexico has soared.
Obama would not relent. White House aides said that re-imposing the weapons ban would be politically untenable, requiring votes of conservative congressional Democrats worried about alienating gun rights advocates.
Obama prepared carefully for the latest summit. The White House knew beforehand that Cuba would be a focus, aides said. Obama was not about to end the embargo, but he did make a concession before arriving in Trinidad, lifting restrictions on Cuban-Americans who wish to visit family.
Speaking at the opening ceremony Friday, Obama said, “The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba.” The statement followed Cuban President Raul Castro’s comment a day earlier expressing willingness to discuss a wide range of traditionally off-limits topics, including human rights.
As it turned out Saturday, Obama’s statement, which included, “I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues – from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues,” was not enough to defuse the issue.