March 16, 2011 in Nation/World

Obama’s visit fuels optimism in Latin America

Mimi Whitefield McClatchy
 

As President Barack Obama prepares for his trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador this week, there is optimism in the region that his swing south will begin a new relationship – one that reflects the profound changes Latin America has undergone in the past decade.

But with a budget crisis looming in the United States and the possibility of a partial U.S. government shutdown by the end of the week if a stopgap measure isn’t approved, the president’s trip, scheduled for Friday through Wednesday, could be delayed.

If the trip goes forward as planned, the Latin America that Obama will encounter is more confident, more politically diverse and healthier economically since adopting sometimes painful reforms.

Chile and Brazil have looked to new markets beyond the Western Hemisphere and increasingly formed investment and trade links with China. Chile’s trade with China, for example, is now more than double its trade with the United States, and China also has overtaken the United States as Brazil’s top trading partner.

“South America, especially, feels much more autonomous economically and politically now,” said Sergio Bitar, who served as minister of mining, education and public works under three different Chilean administrations.

Many Latin economies weathered the global economic crisis better and emerged more quickly than the United States.

The old days of U.S. paternalism are “over; it’s ended,” said Bitar, currently a visiting fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

For his first foreign trip of the year, Obama has chosen Brazil, an emerging world power; Chile, a dependable ally with a solid economy; and El Salvador, a Central American nation that emerged from civil war in the early 1990s only to find itself in a new war against organized crime, gangs and poverty.

On a more personal level, the president is expected to make the trip with wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia. Their presence will be an added attraction in family-oriented Latin America.

The first family is expected to receive a warm welcome in Brazil, their first stop and a country with a multiethnic society. “Brazil has the largest African heritage population after Nigeria. Obama is very popular in Brazil. He is the only foreign leader who polls above 50 percent,” said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Brazil in particular offers an opportunity to turn over a new leaf.

Despite a long-standing and generally tight relationship with the U.S., former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s foreign policy was increasingly at odds with that of the United States in the latter months of his term.

Not only did he say that U.S. policy under Obama had “changed little or not at all,” but Brazil’s attempt with Turkey to broker a deal last year to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis also was not appreciated by the United States. Nor was Brazil’s recognition of the state of Palestine based on the borders that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.

But the new president, Dilma Rousseff, has indicated she wants a closer, more pragmatic relationship with the United States. “Brazil and the United States have to relearn how to relate to each other, and this is an important step,” Sotero said.

The Obama administration has said the trip will be an opportunity to engage this region of 590 million people. The trip also fulfills a promise the president made in his State of the Union address to visit the three countries.

For some, that engagement is a bit overdue. And it must produce results, said Carl Meacham, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar’s senior aide for Latin America and the Caribbean

“The trip will mean little if the president doesn’t get anything substantive. … Just showing up isn’t enough,” Meacham said.

Among the needed measures, he said, are concrete steps to improve the United States’ business relationship with Brazil as well as an indication of the administration’s commitment to getting approval for the Colombia and Panama Free Trade Agreements.

The visit, said presidential spokesman Jay Carney, will be an opportunity “to advance our efforts to work as equal partners to address the basic challenges facing the people of the Americas.”

For Brazilian Ambassador to the U.S. Mauro Vieira, the trip “is a very good sign of the president’s interest in strengthening relations in this part of the word. For us, it’s very timely with our new president in place.”

Obama is expected to sound some of the same themes he did in his State of the Union address: jobs, innovation, alternative energy sources, education and leadership in research and technology.

While no new policy initiatives are expected for Brazil and Chile, it is possible that Obama will propose a Central America regional security plan to help fight drugs and thugs that will include some U.S. money for additional security programs.

Already, Mexican drug cartels are moving south into Central America where borders are porous and local gangs seem only too willing to lend themselves to the drug trade.

“We’re confident that the Mexican cartels haven’t established a base in El Salvador but we must prevent this from happening,” said Francisco Altschul, Salvadoran ambassador to the United States.

El Salvador has long served as a transit point for drugs coming from Colombia to the United States.

In general, Bitar, the former Chilean minister, said he thought the message of the trip would be empathy and a “vision for the future.”

But that doesn’t mean Brazil and Chile don’t have wish lists:

Brazil would like a statement of support from Obama for its bid to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Obama gave such a thumbs-up to fellow emerging power India during his trip there last year.

It would also please the Brazilians if the phasing out of U.S. tariffs on Brazilian ethanol is discussed.

Chile would like to become the only Latin American country to get a visa waiver that would allow Chileans to enter the United States freely. Only 32 countries – most of them in Europe – have such waivers. Argentina and Uruguay had them but they were revoked around 2007.

Such a program for Chile would give President Sebastian Pinera a big political boost and help solidify his forecast that Chile will become an “advanced economy” as early as 2018.

Chile also is interested in U.S. streamlining of inspection of its agricultural exports to the U.S. market.


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