ANALYSIS: Obama earns high marks on South America tour

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 23, 2011 

SANTIAGO, Chile — With Japan’s nuclear crisis, an escalating Libyan conflict and a bitter budget debate, the fact that President Barack Obama made it to Latin America at all was something of an achievement.

But as Air Force One leaves El Salvador on Wednesday — after a five-day, three-nation trip — some here wonder what will be left behind once the glow of the visit fades.

In his first extensive trip to Latin America since assuming office, Obama has won high marks for his conciliatory tone and acknowledgment of Latin America as a powerful economic and political force that deserves a partnership of equals.

During his keynote address to the Americas from Chile on Monday, Obama hailed the region’s progress and said Latin America was “more important to the prosperity and security of the United States than ever before.”

The White House signed trade and Open Skies deals in Brazil, education and nuclear-cooperation agreements in Chile, and security agreements in El Salvador.

But coming on the 50th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress — a $20-billion Latin America initiative with a decade worth of goals — some were expecting bolder proposals.

“What we saw was a lot of protocol, but nothing on the political, social or economic front that would have much of an impact,” said Bernardo Navarrete, a professor of international relations at Chile’s Catholic University, reacting to Obama’s speech. “It was a trip without surprises.”

But the tour has helped soothe egos in a region feeling neglected.

On the campaign trail, Obama vowed to forge closer ties with his American neighbors. But the financial meltdown and ongoing strife in the Middle East had the administration focused elsewhere.

On the eve of this trip, there were rumors that the U.S. budget crisis and woes abroad would force a last minute cancellation. His decision to barge ahead was appreciated here, even as he was forced to order air strikes on Libya while in Brazil.

Obama spent two-days in Brazil, more time than any other location — tacit recognition that the world’s seventh-largest economy has emerged as a regional leader and a global power.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — the nation’s first female leader — called her meeting with the United States’ first black president a historic moment.

It was also a welcome change from the tense relationship developed between Obama and Rousseff’s predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

“I think this is a new beginning for U.S. Brazil relations,” said David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia. “Dilma is trying to remove ideology and politics from this relationship and get down to more pragmatic questions, including economic issues.”

This trip also gave Obama a chance to show his more personable side.

In Brazil, he kicked soccer balls with school kids and reminisced about watching the classic Brazilian film, Black Orpheus, with his mother.

In Chile, he got laughs when he thanked Sebastián Piñera for the hospitality extended to his family “and, most importantly, to my mother in law.”

Enthusiasm was particularly high in El Salvador, where welcome banners and billboards showing Obama’s face and the flags of both nations festooned the streets.

Obama’s Central American stopover was scheduled to focus on security as that region is being pulled into the maw of escalating drug violence. As offensives in Colombia and Mexico are squeezing trafficking routes, as much as 60 percent of cocaine from the Andes now passes through Central America.

Despite hopes that Obama might make an announcement legal status of some 225,000 El Salvadorans living in the United States under Temporary Protected Status, Obama told the local press it required the support of Congress.

The overnight visit was a special distinction for President Mauricio Funes, the first leftist president in El Salvador’s modern history, who came to power in 2009 backed by a coalition of former Marxist guerrillas.

“President Obama wants to give a big show of support for President Funes” for keeping the nation on a moderate path despite pressure from his FMLN coalition partners, said Abraham Rodriguez, one of the founders of the centrist Christian Democratic party.

In one of the most symbolic stops on the trip, Obama visited the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero — a Catholic priest gunned down in 1980 during the height of El Salvador’s civil war. The police intelligence agents suspected of committing the murder had U.S. military backing at the time.

Despite the dearth of bold concrete proposals, Obama’s conciliatory itinerary — as well as the images of Obama traveling with his wife and two young daughters — have struck a chord in the region.

In Santiago, Marisol Salazar, 50, a nursery school teacher, said she disagrees with the United State’s Cuba policy and was disappointed that Obama had not shutdown the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as he promised.

Still, she spent Monday hoping to catch a glimpse of him and his family.

“When Bush came here [in 2004], I was on the streets protesting,” she said. “But I prayed for Obama to win the presidency. Now, I’m praying that he doesn’t betray us.”

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