President Obama got mostly low marks from pundits for his handling of Latin American leaders in Trinidad — drawing deductions for lack of substance, declining to respond directly to U.S. skeptics, and appearing friendly with Venezuelan snark machine Hugo Chavez.
But if there is one immutable truth about the Summit of the Americas, it's that nowadays it is far more about the theatre than about the policy. The goal of the leftist heads of state at the summit was to make Obama and the U.S. look like Carrie at the prom. But Obama did the right thing — and a masterful job — in sidestepping the bloody rhetoric and refusing to be drawn into conflict. In reality, his performance was a long-term win for U.S. foreign policy.
Conservatives who have criticized the president fail to recognize that it is precisely confrontation what the Bolivarians want. Anti-Americanism is a building block of Latin American populism: blaming the U.S. for all of Latin America's problems has been a pastime for the region's leftists for many years. That is precisely the central theme of the book Chavez gave Obama: The Open Veins of Latin America. Fueling anti-American sentiment serves them well as a smokescreen for their own corruption, mismanagement and abuses of power.
In the last eight years, Chavez and his gang were able to easily focus their anti-Americanism on the person of George W. Bush. Now that he is gone, and a popular new U.S. president is in charge, they need to look harder for a scapegoat. That is why weeks before the summit Chavez called Obama an "ignoramus," and Morales even accused the U.S. last week of sponsoring an alleged plot to assassinate him. But it takes two to tango, and Obama rightfully avoided a public row with the populists. It was not a sign of weakness, but a display of smart diplomacy.
It is clear now that the Summit of the Americas is not the appropriate venue for the U.S. to launch any foreign policy initiative towards Latin America. Since the death of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in the summit of Mar del Plata in 2005, this forum has lost any useful collective purpose. Instead, it has been hijacked by populist leaders such as Chavez, Daniel Ortega and Evo Morales to rant against "U.S. imperialism" and "Yankee interventionism" in Latin America. This time around, the Bolivarian squad had announced that they would bring the "artillery" to attack Obama over the U.S. embargo on Cuba. By lifting travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban Americans and announcing his willingness to engage the island, Obama watered down the populists' aim to turn the summit into a minefield of rancor over U.S. Cuba policy.
However, the Obama administration should complement its good PR moves with sound policies towards Latin America. While avoiding fights with those leaders who antagonize the U.S., Obama should engage those countries that want to do business with America. President Obama saw first hand this past weekend that friends in the region should not be taken for granted. That is why he should push for the approval of two pending free trade agreements, with Colombia and Panama.
Also, Obama should press on for comprehensive immigration reform that allows undocumented foreigners to legalize their status in the U.S. and grants enough visas for temporary guest workers. This would consolidate the goodwill he has received so far from many Hispanics, especially in Mexico and Central America.
Finally, Obama should be even bolder in his engagement of Cuba than he has thus far. While still condemning human rights violations and the lack of political and economic freedoms on the island, and asking other countries in the region to do the same, he should move towards lifting the embargo and the travel ban altogether. That would leave no opportunity whatsoever for the Castro regime to blame the U.S. for the dilapidated state of the Cuban economy, and it would pull the rug from under those in Latin America who prefer to criticize the U.S. rather than repression in Cuba.
Obama's trip to Trinidad and Tobago should be lauded. But now he needs to match his diplomatic skills with effective policies that benefit the U.S. and Latin America alike.