As President Obama said, “Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States. They own CITGO. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chávez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”
When Gingrich was asked what was the downside of President Obama speaking to Chavez, Newt said, “I don’t think there’s any down side to talking to him, but I think being friends, taking a picture that clearly looks like they’re buddies, hurts in all of Latin America.”
Obama outlined what he is learning about the world from the leaders in general and that he will use what he has learned in Europe, Turkey, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago to foster a better working relationship with the nations of the world.
Obama implicitly acknowledged some of the criticism by the Latin American and Caribbean countries about America not being a good neighbor — just a military force in the region. Obama said that he felt the United States could learn a lesson from Cuba which for decades has sent doctors to other countries throughout Latin America to care for the poor. That policy of being a good neighbor who is there to give a helping hand in times of need has made Cuban leaders Fidel and Raúl Castro gain support and respect in the region.
“It’s a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is just drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence,” Obama said.
Obama also said that he is willing to open dialogue with Cuba but he wanted to see some action from Cuba first, not just words. Obama mentioned Raúl Castro’s recent statement that his country was willing to discuss human rights issues with the United States. In response Obama said that Cuba should free political prisoners, reduces its tax on cash remittances to the island and grant new freedoms to its citizens as a next step in thawing relations with the United States.
During the summit, Obama presented a broader U.S. agenda for Latin America than under the Bush and Clinton administrations, which focused primarily on trade and counter-narcotics programs.
President Obama pledged to work closely with Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada on climate change, public security threats, and bottom-up approaches to economic relations, development aid and lending.
Although Obama heard criticism over heavy-handed U.S. economic policy and political interventions of the past, the anti-American tone did not reach the pitch it did in previous summits. Obama spoke only briefly in a series of closed-door meetings, saying he wanted to listen to the hemisphere’s other 33 democratically elected leaders gathered here.
Nicaragua’s Ortega, a longtime U.S. critic, called Obama the “president of an empire” but said he found him open to doing things differently than his predecessors. “I want to believe that he’s inclined, that he’s got the will,” Ortega said.
Asked Sunday what he had learned in T&T, Obama said, “Even the most vociferous critics of the United States also want to make sure that the United States’ economy is working and growing again, because there is extraordinary dependence on the United States for exports, for remittances. And so, in that sense, people are rooting for America’s success.”