US President Barack Obama has begun moving on several fronts to repair strained US relations with Latin America. The American leader meets Saturday, March 14, at the White House with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
He is also sending Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Latin American missions to prepare for the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
US ties with Latin America came under stress during the Bush administration, which was largely preoccupied with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and had contentious relations with several populist governments in the region, notably Venezuela and Bolivia.
But the Obama administration said it is intent on trying to repair frayed regional ties based on what it says should be reciprocal dialogue and respect.
As an overture to President Obama's White House meeting Saturday with Brazil's President Lula da Silva, the administration announced a mission to Chile and Costa Rica by Vice President Biden, and a Mexico trip by Secretary Clinton, both later this month.
At a State Department briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon cast the upcoming hemispheric summit in Trinidad and Tobago, which Mr. Obama will attend, as an opportunity for a fresh start in relations, based on what he termed "a spirit of engagement and constructive dialogue."
He said that efforts at outreach will apply to, among others, the Bolivian government of President Evo Morales, which has expelled two U.S. diplomats in recent months amid accusations they interfered in Bolivian politics:
"We need a full diplomatic dialogue and a high-quality dialogue. And regrettably up to this point, as we have sought to engage the Bolivians around the issues that have provoked their own actions, we have yet to receive what we consider to be a coherent or consistent response. However we will continue to approach the Bolivians in the hope that we can address the underlying issues that have affected the relationship," he said.
Shannon cast Saturday's White House visit by President Lula as recognition of Brazil's "global ascendancy" and an opportunity to build on a US partnership with Brazil on such issues as social justice, climate change, and development of alternate fuels.
The State Department said Friday that Secretary Clinton will visit Mexico City and Monterrey in two weeks (March 25-26) for talks focusing on key issues in the US-Mexican agenda including the Merida Initiative, under which the United States is helping Mexico combat violent drug traffickers.
For his part, Vice President Biden will travel to Chile for a regional conference on progressive governance hosted by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet that will also include the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.
Later in Costa Rica, Mr. Biden will be hosted by President Oscar Arias, who has invited leaders of other Central American states for a joint meeting with the Vice President in San Jose.
Lula, Biden and Brown
Under the logo "A Progressive response to the global crisis" Chilean president Michelle Bachelet will host a new Progressive Leaders summit to which top international leaders from Africa, Latin America, United states and Europe have confirmed their participation.
Heads of state and government linked to Social-democrat, Socialist, Social Christian, Labor, Progressive-Labor and Democrat parties will be meeting to share government experiences, exchange ideas and identify cooperation areas and international coordination.
According to the Chilean presidency website, so far the leaders who have confirmed their attendance are Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner; Brazil's Luis Inácio Lula da Silva; Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Uruguayan president Tabare Vazquez,
British Prime Mininster Gordon Brown has also been confirmed since he will be arriving in Chile on an official. The United States will be represented by Vice President Joseph Biden who will also be on an official visit to Chile.
Other personalities include Donald Kaberuka, president of Africa's Development Bank; Alicia Bárcena, executive director for the UN LatAm and Caribbean Economic Commission and Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, OAS.
The worldwide web of Progressive leaders was launched in 1999 and since then has held summits in Berlin, 2000; Stockholm, 2002; London, 2003 and 2008; Budapest, 2004 and Johannesburg 2006.
The United States sees the coming Americas Summit next April in Trinidad Tobago as an opportunity to begin a new relation with Latin America in a "spirit of equals" since the region will have to play a crucial role in the reply to the global economic crisis.
"The global crisis will be the leading topic" at the coming summit, said US Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, who added the US will not try to set out policies, but rather "help to implement and develop policies."
Shannon participated on Thursday of an informative round at the Inter American Dialogue, next to Jeff Davidow, White House advisor for the coming Americas summit.
"We have great hopes that we can develop a new dialogue," said the two US officials.
"President Obama will participate in a spirit of equals and perceives the meeting as an excellent opportunity to meet with the region's leaders, exchange ideas and listen," with a respectful attitude from all sides towards peers.
Shannon said that Washington expects the rest of the leaders to present their ideas in a "cooperation spirit"
Davidow added that President Obama would not arrive at the summit with great promises, "Obama is not Father Christmas, he won't be carrying a bag of presents."
The main issue which the US will want to address at the summit is the economic crisis, an issue sufficiently serious and overwhelming that relegates all other problems.
Shannon recalled that the Americas' summit in Trinidad Tobago will take place two weeks after the London G-20 summit to address the global crisis and the US will seek to advance on the results achieved at the meeting, which will have Argentina, Brazil and Mexico representing Latin America.
Latin America has "an important role to play in the design of a global response to the crisis," said Shannon adding that the US would like to see issues addressed in a "pragmatic" way that helps achieve results.
One of the objectives is to find ways by which the most vulnerable countries don't suffer the full impact and collaborate with international financial institutions so that those nations can have access to the necessary credits so as to develop their own stimulus plans."
Shannon said the US will also promote the social issues agenda of the region and increase cooperation so as to support social justice, equal opportunities and combat poverty.
"Strengthening governance and the democratic process and security" is an area of special interest for Washington as well as a green agenda to forge cooperation in climate change and maximizing energy efficiency.
In a meeting with Mexican president Calderón last January, when he still was president-elect, Obama launched the idea of an "energy alliance" with the continent, "and this could very well be in the agenda" pointed out Davidow.