Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Obama's trip to South America: Not before time

By David Roberts

We all know US diplomats, or any other diplomats for that matter, don't say what they mean when they speak in public - we never needed WikiLeaks to show us that - and in recent days we've been subject to yet another insult to our intelligence in the form of various officials from the US and elsewhere claiming that President Barack Obama's forthcoming tour of Latin America, announced recently in the State of the Union address, is proof of Washington's high degree of interest in the region and of Latin America's importance to the administration. In fact, the exact opposite is true.

The fact that Obama's first visit as president to South America - the March trip will encompass Brazil and Chile, while El Salvador is the other country on the itinerary - is scheduled to take place more than two years after he took office, shows Washington's lack of interest in the region and how low a priority Latin America is for US foreign policy. Obama will have visited nearly every other region of the world before he finally sets foot in the southern part of "America's backyard," although he did make previous trips to Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago.

Nevertheless, the countries he has chosen to visit "to forge new alliances across the Americas," as he puts it, should take advantage of the honor. Details of the trip are still sketchy but Brazil as the region's economic powerhouse was an absolute must for Obama, and the visit is long overdue. While in Brazil, which under President Lula experienced at times tense relations with the US, especially over Iran, Obama will meet with new President Dilma Rousseff and the two are expected to discuss issues such as clean energy, the Haiti situation and the sale of fighter jets, among others. But the important thing as that Rousseff sets her own agenda, and uses the occasion to help Brazil take its rightful place on the world stage.

In Chile, Obama is expected to discuss with President Sebastián Piñera topics such as nuclear security, clean energy and crisis management, in the wake of last February's earthquake. Piñera needs to take advantage of the visit to get the almost forgotten topic of free trade in the Americas firmly back on the political and international agenda.

El Salvador is at first sight a curious choice to include on the tour, but issues such as immigration to the US will undoubtedly be featured in talks between Obama and President Mauricio Funes. Indeed, the need to win back the votes of many Latinos in the US may well be the prime motive for the El Salvador visit.

Perhaps equally interesting are the countries in the region not included in the tour. The omission of Venezuela was no surprise to anyone, given its leftist leader, but not including Colombia, where the US has some unfinished business in the form of ratifying the free trade deal between the two countries, and Argentina, and perhaps Peru too, may be seen as a snub. Some have said Obama did not want to be seen to be meddling in the upcoming elections in those latter two countries, but even so, he will probably never make it to those important and friendly nations, at least not unless he wins a second term in office, and that is another indication of Washington's - and not just this administration's, the same thing has been true under several previous presidents - lack of interest in the region.