With forays to Mexico and the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Barack Obama has succeeded in conveying a new U.S. attitude — and policy direction — for relations with Latin America.
The trips were preceded by policy actions.
His April 16 visit with President Felipe Calderón in Mexico City was intended to show solidarity in Mexico’s fight against drug-trafficking cartels.
In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had acknowledged that the United States — with its uncontrolled gun running and demand for illicit drugs — shared responsibility for the cartels’ violence.
In mid-March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced an initiative to multiply the number of intelligence analysts working on the border and step up searches of vehicles going into Mexico.
Just prior to Obama’s departure for Mexico, Alan Bersin was named "border czar." The former U.S. attorney in San Diego, and later its school superintendent, was in charge in the mid-1990s of implementing "Operation Gatekeeper," which fortified the area’s border gateway. The measure effectively shifted illegal immigration to dangerous desert crossings to the east.
Fluent in Spanish, Bersin becomes the administration’s "go-to" person on illegal immigration and drug violence issues along the border.
TheNews.com of Mexico City called Obama’s trip a protocol visit. It quoted Cristián Castaño, deputy of the governing National Action Party, as saying, "All the signals that we’ve received from President Obama is that he wants to establish a new relationship."
After meeting with Calderón, Obama announced he planned to support an inter-American weapons treaty meant to fight the drug trade. The treaty, adopted by the Organization of American States, was signed in 1997 by former President Bill Clinton but was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.
As for Cuba, when the White House announced earlier this month that it was withdrawing restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting relatives on the island or sending remittances there, Cuban President Raul Castro responded: "We are prepared, whenever they want, to discuss everything — human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners — everything, everything that they want to discuss."
Castro made his remarks while attending a rump meeting of leftist Latin American presidents, hosted by Venezuela’s antagoniste President Hugo Chávez.
The U.S. announcement and Castro’s response diffused tension that had been expected at the summit over inviting Cuba to rejoin the OAS. Cuba was expelled in 1962. Reintegration can only be considered if the Cuban government or a group of OAS member countries requests it.
In 1998, Mexico had led an initiative to form a "group of friends" to reintegrate Cuba. Lloyd Axworthy, then Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, had called the proposal a good idea. The United States has been increasingly alone on maintaining the half-century-old exclusion of Cuba from the community of American nations.
At the summit’s opening ceremonies, Obama told leaders, "The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba." White House press secretary Robert Gibbs made clear the United States was not abandoning the demand that Cuba make concrete moves toward democracy and human rights. OAS President José Miguel Insulza said he would ask the 34 member nations to annul the 1962 resolution in May and invite Cuba back into the fold.
At the summit’s end, Obama spoke of "launching a new era of partnerships." He said he saw "potential positive signs" of better relations with Cuba and Venezuela. "The test for all of us," he added, "is not simply words but deeds."
(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Contact him at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)