Yes to President Obama’s Tone at the Summit. Now Let’s See the Action!

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As our President addressed the gathering of the hemisphere’s leaders, the Summit of the Americas, in Trinidad-Tobago, he got the tone right. “There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values,” he said in his official speech. In other settings, he went farther: “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, noting that Cuba’s sending of doctors to care for the poor in other countries offered an example to the United States. He also stated he is “absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments” (reported in The New York Times here and in The Washington Post, “Obama Closes Summit, Vows Broader Engagement with Latin America,” April 20, 2009).

The President steered clear of the Bush Administration’s “best friendism,” in which Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was placed on a pedestal and all human rights flaws overlooked. He is choosing a more expansive set of relationships with the hemisphere’s leaders. And an olive branch seemed to be partially extended to Venezuela and Bolivia.

President Obama characterized past U.S. policy towards Latin America as “we have at times been disengaged, and at times sought to dictate our terms.” This was a far too gentle, unsatisfying critique of a history that has included propping up dictators, overthrowing elected governments, tying aid and trade to harsh adjustment policies, and arming and training human rights abusers. (Mr. Obama—maybe you should read that copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America which President Chavez handed you!) But when he cautioned that while “the United States’ policy should not be interference in other countries… that also means that we can’t blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere,” he had a valid point.

And his words about social exclusion and racism resounded. “So together, we have to stand up against any force that separates any of our people from that story of liberty—whether it's crushing poverty or corrosive corruption; social exclusion or persistent racism or discrimination.”

Perhaps most importantly, President Obama made a point of saying he came to listen. And then he did so.

So, he struck some of the right notes. Now the question is, what, in terms of aid and trade and diplomacy, is he going to do? The White House did not unveil many new policies, either leading up to the Summit or during it. There was the welcome but limited lifting of restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba for Cuban Americans. At the Summit, the President announced a $100 million Microfinance Growth Fund for the Western Hemisphere, which sounds like a good step. But there was not much else announced in any detail.

In his stop in Mexico City before the Summit, it was encouraging to hear President Obama restate his commitment to fix our broken and antiquated immigration system, as well as support for “the kind of bottom-up economic growth here in Mexico that will allow people to live out their dreams here.”

President Obama’s words of partnership and shared responsibility while in Mexico struck a chord, with the Mexican government and public alike.  But while he promised the United States would do more to curb the flow of arms, he made clear that it would be politically difficult to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and made no specific promises to do so.

At the Summit, he again talked about shared responsibility, and it was particularly heartening to hear him mention the need to curb demand for illicit drugs at home. But again, we heard no specific plans for increasing funding for drug treatment and prevention—although we can still hope that will be forthcoming.

And… underlying the whole tone and content of President Obama’s participation in the Summit was the 11 million-person island in the Americas below the shore of Florida. The continent, to a country, would not let President Obama forget that ending the embargo on Cuba is a priority for them. Restoring Cuban-Americans’ rights is a first and needed step. But what about the rest of our nation’s right to travel? We believe that more positive steps will follow, but we must press the administration to do what is right without waiting to see what Cuba will do.

See the President’s full speech at

U.S. policy towards Latin America is notoriously resistant to change. The President may be setting a new tone, but within the various agencies of the government, officials are cranking out the same policies and will do so until a new direction is set.

  • At the Pentagon, officials are still pushing inappropriate roles for Latin American militaries in law enforcement, with Mexico being the latest case, despite our own proud tradition of ensuring that our own military doesn't police within our borders.
  • At the Drug Czar’s office (ONDCP), and at the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau, officials still seem to think that aerial spraying of drug crops in Colombia works, despite all evidence—their own evidence—to the contrary.
  • The U.S. Trade Representative’s office is eager to get moving on stalled trade agreements. While there’s more talk about trade and inequality and trade and labor rights, there’s no clarity on a new direction, especially with already signed agreements such as with Panama and Colombia.
  • And the human rights bureau of the State Department is adrift while it awaits a new head to be appointed. A strong leader devoted to human rights is urgently needed.

One sign of a new direction towards Latin America—or the lack of one—will be revealed when we get the details of the Obama Administration’s first budget. We are hoping for more aid to reduce poverty and to strengthen the rule of law, and less military aid, and a serious increase in drug treatment programs here at home.  We like the tone, Mr. President. But we’re still waiting, and hoping, for change.