Obama's Latin America trip offers look at changed region

The Miami HeraldMarch 14, 2011 

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 stop-gap 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 an emerging world power — Brazil; 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.

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