Signs of Spring: U.S.-Latin America Relations Thaw

Signs of Spring: U.S.-Latin America Relations Thaw

When I started covering Latin America 20 years ago, a leftist source asked what books I’d read to help myself understand the region’s manera de pensar, or psyche. I fidgeted and mentioned Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude. He shrugged. José Martí’s Our America? Eh. How about everything by Gabriel García Márquez? He shook his head and handed me Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America — the same book Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made a show of giving Barack Obama on Saturday before Obama’s meeting with South American leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Read the subtitle of Galeano’s 1971 work — Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent — and you know why the left-wing, anti-U.S. Chavez would present it to a U.S. President. The book’s thesis is that Spain, then Britain, the U.S. and Latin oligarchs ransacked Latin American resources, from copper to crude, bleeding the region of its natural wealth and its sovereign dignity. But even if you don’t subscribe to its Marxist-tinged polemic, The Open Veins is one of the best introductions to the longstanding Latin grievances that keep producing populist leaders like Chávez. It was an appropriate gift for Obama — not because he’s clueless about that manera de pensar, but because he proved at the Trinidad summit to be the first U.S. President to get it. “We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms,” to Latin America, he told the gathering. “But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations.”

If it’s genuine, it’s hard to underestimate how important that promise is to Latin Americans, who’ve experienced a lot more heavy-handed interventionism and condescending disregard than they have partnership from either Republicans or Democrats in Washington. It not only heartened Latin leaders in Trinidad, it disarmed them. The summit could have easily deteriorated into another yanqui-bashing fest over the U.S.’s role in the global economic crisis or its antiquated trade embargo against Cuba. But Obama had even Chávez feeling “great optimism” that his nation’s icy relations with the U.S. will thaw, starting with the return of each other’s ambassadors, expelled last year, to Washington and Caracas.

That bonhomie was hardly assured beforehand. Obama and Chávez had been critical of each other in recent months, with Obama suggesting that Chávez supported Colombian guerrilla violence and Chávez suggesting, as a result, that Obama was an “ignoramus.” To many observers it was a toss-up whether Chávez — who has pledged that he and his leftist allies in the region will not sign the gathering’s final declaration, to protest the fact that communist Cuba is still not invited to these summits — would upbraid Obama in Port of Spain or, given Obama’s international popularity, reach out to him. But they shared a warm handshake Friday night, during which Obama tried his Spanish and Chávez insisted, according to a Venezuela communiqué, “I want to be your friend.”

So, it seems, does the rest of the region after this summit. To most Latin Americans, Obama could not present a starker contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, whom Chávez once called “the devil” and whose relations with the hemisphere were strained at best. Even Bill Clinton as President didn’t set foot south of the border until five months into his second term. Latin America, according to many experts, has the worst gap between rich and poor of any region in the world — a big reason why the U.S. has so many immigration-policy headaches. And what Obama gave the region this weekend was a reason to think that it could finally set aside its 20th-century resentments — which, admittedly, have too often been exploited by Latin leaders as an excuse for their own epic failings and iron fists — and move on to 21st-century development. To believe, that is, that the U.S. now appreciates what Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told TIME in a recent interview — that it’s not smart policy for the U.S. to be such a rich country “surrounded by so many poor people.”

Obama also seems to understand now that he and the hemisphere won’t get too far in correcting that situation until they get past the Cuba problem. It turned out to be the summit’s marquee issue, largely because other Latin leaders see the embargo as a reflection of how Washington treats them as well. Before leaving for Trinidad, Obama eliminated restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island — a gesture that effectively threw the ball, as Obama said, into Havana’s court. To everyone’s surprise, Cuban President Raul Castro — who is making a serious push to have his country readmitted to hemispheric groups like the Organization of Americans States — responded by saying he was “willing to talk” about matters like the scores of jailed dissidents in Cuba. Obama kept the ball rolling, suggesting in Port of Spain that the U.S. “seeks a new beginning with Cuba” in a speech that Latin presidents like Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called a big step toward “re-stabilizing” U.S.-Latin American relations.

Obama needs to follow Trinidad’s feel-good rhetoric with more concrete programs, although he and Latin America know he can’t do much in the short term thanks to the U.S.’s economic calamity. Many Latin American officials in recent months have told TIME they’re not looking for much for now; but they do want to make sure Obama shifts hemispheric priorities away from the U.S. obsession with free trade and the drug war to development concerns like education, alternative energy and democratic institution-building, which the U.S. President did engage in Trinidad.

At the same time, if Chávez and other Latin leftists want Obama to read Galeano, they in turn should read Obama. In his own books, like The Audacity of Hope, Obama lays out the common-sense, post-ideological political philosophy that has led to the U.S. shift on Latin America that so many in the region are now applauding. It’s something Latin America’s yanqui-bashers, if they want to keep receiving applause from Latin voters themselves, should keep in mind.
See TIME’s photos of the salsa music scene in Cuba
See TIME’s pictures of the week