Latin America Looks for a Fresh Start with Obama

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President-elect Barack Obama listens as Mexico's President Felipe Calderón makes a statement to reporters in Washington

Tarek William Saab is a veritable Renaissance man, a Venezuelan human-rights lawyer and a published poet who reveres Bob Dylan and the writers of America's Beat Generation. But this former Congressman and now two-term governor of Anzoategui, a prime oil-producing state on Venezuela's eastern coast, is also one of President Hugo Chávez's most popular and devoted lieutenants. That means he has lots of issues with the U.S. and is watching President-elect Barack Obama with a hopeful but wary eye.

Saab was imprisoned by an opposition mob during a failed 2002 coup against Chávez that the Bush Administration tacitly supported. The State Department refuses to give him a U.S. entry visa, reportedly because it suspects that Saab, who is of Druze Lebanese descent and is an outspoken critic of Israel, has ties to Arab terrorists, a charge he strongly denies. "It goes against everything I stand for," Saab, sitting under a large photo of Chávez, told TIME at his home. The real reason he's barred from America, he insists, is that "Chávez is a stone in the shoe of the powers that be in the U.S." In that sense, he argues, his own situation "reflects Washington's lack of respect for our sovereignty, our processes, our identity." (See TIME's Person of the Year, People Who Mattered and more.)

Whether or not that's true, Saab's sentiments reflect how many if not most Latin Americans feel about Washington. And that's actually good news for Obama, whose first regional summit, fittingly, will be the Summit of the Americas, to be held in Trinidad in April. (Obama already met with Mexican President Felipe Calderón earlier this week and has said he will make Canada the destination of his first foreign visit as President.) Improving relations with the western hemisphere — as an early item on his diplomatic agenda and not as an afterthought, as most U.S. Presidents approach it — could turn out to be a relatively easy way to prime the pump for better relations with the rest of the world. "Compared with the challenges he faces elsewhere, Latin America's are more manageable," says Michael Shifter, vice president of the InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington. "Strengthening alliances and partnerships in this hemisphere affords him the opportunity to enhance the political capital behind his foreign policy generally."

That might not have been the case a generation or even a decade ago, when Latin America was still known for its economic and political isolation. But today the region "is much more globalized," Shifter notes. "Countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico are more connected internationally." China's trade with Latin America has increased tenfold this decade; meanwhile, countries such as India, Iran and Russia have discovered that other nations apart from the U.S. and Cuba actually exist in this hemisphere.

As a result, how the U.S. is perceived in Latin America resonates more robustly with the wider world today. Bush certainly found that out when the international community, in ways rarely seen during the gringo interventionist days of the Cold War, condemned the White House's early backing of the 2002 Venezuela coup. Likewise, good relations with leaders like Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, perhaps Latin America's most respected head of state today for his smart blend of capitalism and socialism, make a more positive impression in Europe, Asia and Africa.

And the region is ready for a fresh start: the sheer fact that los yanquis elected a liberal African American as President has already done a good deal to alter Uncle Sam's image in Latin America, even among leftists. None other than Chávez said last month that "there are winds in favor of relations between the Venezuelan government and the new President of the U.S." Cuban President Raúl Castro has said much the same. The amiability turned sour this weekend, however, when Chávez, reacting to a new Univision interview with Obama in which the President-elect calls him "a force that has interrupted progress" in Latin America, in turn said he fears Obama may have "the same stench" as President Bush.

Obama's foreign policy campaign rhetoric was welcomed by Latinos tired of Washington's obsession with the drug war, free trade and democratic elections as panaceas for a continent still plagued by one of the world's worst gaps between rich and poor. Democratic elections are of course a good thing. But "if we want to win the hearts and minds of people in Caracas, Jakarta, Nairobi or Tehran," Obama wrote in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, "dispersing ballot boxes will not be enough. We'll have to make sure that the international rules we're promising enhance, rather than impede, people's sense of material and personal security."

Changing policy priorities in Latin America shouldn't be that tall an order. Nor should the more symbolic gestures — like Obama's plans to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo or lift Bush's draconian restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba — which mean a lot in a region where Monroe Doctrine is a dirty term. If Obama demonstrates that he's more interested in helping Haiti with green-energy projects like jatropha-seed oil than he is in making Bolivia eradicate more and more coca bushes, or more committed to steering U.S. aid toward micro-credit ventures for Mexican peasants than to building multibillion-dollar border walls to keep them out, it could go a long way toward making Latin America a more pro-yanqui messenger in places like the Arab world, where the foreign policy stakes are higher. "He's promised a historic change," says Saab. "So if he wants a genuine alliance with Latin America, he should talk about technology transfers instead of the drug war — which is a great hypocrisy since U.S. drug addiction is responsible for it — or health-care projects instead of free trade."

Obama says he's willing to sit down and talk with Chávez and Castro — but he's not a big fan of the Latin left's populism. In a speech last May in Miami, he did slam Bush's Americas policy as "negligent toward our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the challenges that matter in people's lives and incapable of advancing our interests in the region." Yet he also suggested that "demagogues like Chávez have stepped into the vacuum. [Their] predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past."

Chávez responded to Obama's criticisms on Thursday: "Don't say Chávez is throwing stones," he said. "Obama already threw the first one." So while Saab says Latin pols like himself have "reasonably positive expectations" about Obama, they're "skeptical." But even if the U.S. doesn't give Saab a visa while Obama is President, a sufficient number of Latin Americans are likely to see enough change in gringo policy to soften their resentment toward the U.S. And if Obama is smart, he'll see that as a good start instead of an afterthought.

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