One of the most interesting things President Obama told me in a wide-ranging interview last week was something he men...
One of the most interesting things President Obama told me in a wide-ranging interview last week was something he mentioned almost in passing _ that Latin America _is a key to U.S. success._
Was it a sign of a new era in U.S. ties with Latin America? Or was it empty rhetoric aimed at pleasing neighbors and courting U.S. Hispanic voters?
During the interview, which took place in El Salvador toward the end of Obama_s five-day Latin American tour, Obama indicated that Latin America is more important to the United States than it has ever been. The region buys three times more U.S. goods than China, and its economy is growing at an average of more than 5 percent a year.
_But why should we think that you will spend more time working on regional issues after this trip?_ I asked the president.
In a previous interview during the 2008 campaign, Obama had told me that he would appoint a special envoy to Latin America and hold annual Summits of the Americas. But so far, I reminded him, he has not done either.
_Well, keep in mind that we have made significant progress. What we have done is to cultivate strong relationships with all these countries,_ Obama said. _We expanded the G-20 (group of the world_s leading industrial and developing countries). I interact with these folks all the time._
OK, Mr. President, but what about appointing a U.S. Special Envoy, and holding annual hemispheric summits?
Obama responded that the very fact that he didn_t cancel his trip to Latin America because of the crisis in Libya and his military action order, which coincided with the start of his visit speaks for itself.
_The reason I have taken this trip, even in the midst of a lot going on, is to emphasize how important this region is to us,__ he said.
Obama said he wants to create _a new model_ of _equal partnership_ with Latin America, one that says, _we want to work with you, and in some cases, we can learn from you._
_My point is that the focus on Latin America is not one of the United States as benefactor coming here and saying to everyone, _We are here to solve your problems,__ he said. _Countries like Chile, like Brazil, they are now players on the international stage, so our interaction is one of equal partners trying to solve problems, not only in this hemisphere but also around the world._
OK, I insisted, what about your promises to ensure continuous White House attention on the region?
_Look, Latin America is on the front burner,_ he said. _In terms of us being able to hold an annual summit, well, it turns out that there have been a few events that have intervened. We didn_t know that we would have the worst recession since the 1930s, so there were a lot of international coordinating activities that we had to engage in.__
But he added that during his trip last week, _I have been extraordinarily impressed with the progress Latin America has made. I am going to keep focusing on Latin America, because I think it is a key to U.S. success._
My opinion: For a president who does not have a history of personal ties to Latin America and who is busy elsewhere, I found Obama quite up-to-date with regional issues. To my surprise, the White House did not ask me to submit any questions ahead of time. When I asked him about recent events in Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia, among other countries he gave sharp answers _ without seeking pointers from his aides.
And, to his credit, Obama seems to grasp that to compete more effectively with the Asian and European economic blocs _ as well as to reduce the inflow of illegal immigrants and drugs _ the United States needs greater economic and political integration with the region. That_s something that isolationists in the U.S. Congress do not always understand.
But I am afraid that, barring concrete mechanisms to maintain White House attention on the region _ be it annual summits, or a high-level special envoy, or anything else, we won_t see a grand plan by the Obama administration to forge the _alliance of the Americas_ that he promised during the campaign. His _equal partnership_ rhetoric is great, but it_s no substitute for action.