Hearing 'Friend' in Trinidad

This was originally published as an op-ed in the April 22nd Chicago Tribune.

How does Hugo Chavez say "amigo," at least when he's talking to Barack Obama?

He says "friend." As in "I want to be your friend." In English. True, as he "friended" President Barack Obama at the 34-nation Summit of the Americas last weekend in Trinidad, he handed him a book about 500 years of neo-colonialist exploitation of Latin America by Europe and the United States. But the gesture was clear, as was the broad grin on Chavez's face as he shook Obama's hand on the summit's first day. So was Chavez's announcement that he would send a new ambassador to Washington, seven months after pulling out his last envoy in the waning days of the Bush administration.

And Chavez was hardly the only "anti-American" leader to soften his stance against the U.S. Evo Morales of Bolivia, who had announced he would boycott the summit, came after all. He also was caught on camera shaking Obama's hand. And, of course, Cuba's Raul Castro announced he was prepared "to discuss everything" with the new administration—"human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners—everything."

In a trip that began in Mexico City and concluded in Trinidad, Obama showed that he has indeed found the "reset button" for the Americas.

To be sure, there was plenty of criticism at the summit of U.S. policies. But after years of often unnecessary contentiousness, the ability to establish a dialogue across-the-board in Latin America is a huge step forward, as is America's willingness to acknowledge a shared responsibility for common ills.

Candidate Obama promised a year ago in Miami that as president he would bring about a new relationship with Latin America. That promise—conveniently delivered in a majority-Latino city in a battleground state—was met with skepticism. After all, the last president had promised the same thing while campaigning in the same city, and many in the region had found themselves sorely disappointed. Moreover, with the host of domestic and international problems facing the new administration, how much attention could the White House really be expected to pay to Latin America?

But in the past month, the administration has showed it can walk and chew gum simultaneously. In early April, even as much of the administration focused on the financial crisis and the G-20, European and NATO summits, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico and acknowledged that on two frontline issues for Mexico, guns and drugs, the U.S. shared complicity and responsibility. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also traveled to Mexico to reinforce that message. And Vice President Joseph Biden was dispatched to Chile to attend a leaders' summit and to Costa Rica to meet with Central American presidents.

For his own part, Obama invited Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil to Washington to his first bilateral meetings. Finally, before embarking for Mexico and Trinidad, Obama announced a modest but symbolically powerful softening of travel and financial restrictions with Cuba.

Viewed together, these steps illuminate a carefully thought-out and sustained plan of U.S. engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean. Obviously, Obama and his advisers did not view the Summit of the Americas as a check-the-box mandatory appearance. Rather, they used it to anchor a monthlong orchestrated diplomatic campaign to set new benchmarks for the region that are based on mutual respect, a shared responsibility for illegal narcotics and violence and a desire to get beyond old debates of the left versus the right.

Now comes the hard part. How to turn rhetoric into action along the troubled border with Mexico. How to restore strained relations with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador—without backing down on key U.S. priorities such as respect for rule of law, investment security, and in the case of Venezuela, democratic principles. How to move forward on liberalized trade. And how to proceed with some kind of dialogue with Cuba that does not dissolve into backlash, as Gerald Ford's and Bill Clinton's prior efforts did.

Despite the challenges ahead, it certainly was refreshing to end a Summit of the Americas without rallies and bonfires ranged against the American president and with the word "friend" ringing in our ears.

Nelson Cunningham is the Chair of NDN's Latin America Policy Initiative. He advised Barack Obama's presidential campaign on Latin America and served on his transition team. Cunningham also was special adviser to President Bill Clinton for Western Hemisphere affairs