PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago – President Barack Obama concluded a summit of the hemisphere’s leaders Sunday by articulating a broad new agenda for Latin America and the Caribbean, having gained momentum in his bid to repair relations with some of the region’s shrillest critics of the United States.
In a news conference at the end of the fifth Summit of the Americas, Obama outlined what he is learning about the world and how he intends to engage it based on his experiences here and earlier this month in Europe and Turkey. He expressed support for a more central U.S. place in global alliances, including a firm endorsement of the United Nations, and said, “We do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example.”
But Obama, whose reception as the first black U.S. president was at times celebratory in a region where race and poverty are intertwined, indicated that the American role in the hemisphere remains paramount given the size of its economy.
Latin America’s left has long criticized that view as economic imperialism, a sentiment that found voice in speeches here by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Obama implicitly acknowledged that criticism in Sunday’s news conference, venturing so far as to say that he felt the United States could learn a lesson from Cuba, which for decades has sent doctors to other countries throughout Latin America to care for the poor. The policy has won Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro deep goodwill in the region.
“It’s a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence,” he said on a wind-swept hotel terrace, with the green hills of this seaside capital as backdrop.
Regarding relations with Cuba, which many leaders here urged Obama to improve by lifting the economic embargo, the president said, “The policy that we’ve had in place for 50 years hasn’t worked the way we want it to. The Cuban people are not free.”
Obama noted progress, citing Raul Castro’s recent statement that his country was willing to discuss human rights issues with the United States. Cuba, Obama said, should free political prisoners, reduces its tax on remittances to the island and grant new freedoms to its citizens as a next step in thawing relations with the United States.
During the summit, Obama presented a broader U.S. agenda for Latin America than under the Bush and Clinton administrations, which focused primarily on trade and counter-narcotics programs.
Obama pledged to work closely with Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada on climate change, public security threats, and bottom-up approaches to economic relations, development aid and lending.
The anti-American tone did not reach the pitch it did in previous summits. Much of this city’s downtown was sealed off for the gathering, but there were no protests of note beyond the cordon.
Nicaragua’s Ortega, a longtime U.S. critic, called Obama the “president of an empire” but said he found him open to doing things differently than his predecessors.
Asked Sunday what he had learned here, Obama said, “Even the most vociferous critics of the United States also want to make sure that the United States’ economy is working and growing again, because there is extraordinary dependence on the United States for exports, for remittances. And so, in that sense, people are rooting for America’s success.”
Despite a pair of handshakes and photo opportunities with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Obama criticized his economic and foreign policies and “inflammatory” anti-U.S. rhetoric.
But he dismissed criticism from some conservatives in the United States that he was coddling Chavez.
“Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States’. They own Citgo,” the retail arm of Venezuela’s national oil company, Obama said. “It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”