To Mr. Obama: Great opportunities await

November 9, 2008 - The Miami Herald


Congratulations, President-elect Barack Obama! Now that you are moving swiftly to put together your Cabinet and solve the economic crisis, let me suggest a few things you could do in an area that will demand your attention sooner than you may think: Latin America and the Caribbean.

Granted, given the magnitude of the challenges at home, it's not on your list of priorities.

But one of the first international conferences you will have to attend will be the 34-country Summit of the Americas, to be held April 17 to 19 in Trinidad and Tobago. You will have little choice but to prepare ahead for that meeting and arrive with a new U.S. agenda for the region.

And I know that the Western Hemisphere has never been your strong point. As you once told me, you have never visited the region. And when I asked you in an interview last year which are the three Latin American heads of state you respect the most, you looked petrified and couldn't remember any president's name. (To be fair, you cited several regional leaders by name when I interviewed you more recently.)

So allow me to give you a few tips on how to fulfill your campaign promise of ``renewing U.S. leadership in the Americas.''

First, be yourself. Don't don a Mexican sombrero, like your predecessors. You have a tremendous opportunity to re-engage the region just by being the first black president in U.S. history, by having been partly raised abroad and -- perhaps more importantly -- by having opposed the Iraq War from Day One.

As strange as it may seem to you, Latin America ranks among the regions with the highest levels of anti-Americanism today -- not because of anything done to the region by the United States recently, but because of Iraq. Latin Americans have not forgotten the history of past U.S. armed interventions in the region, and the Iraq invasion hit a raw nerve there.


You will enter the presidency with no political baggage. Demagogues like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez will have a hard time painting you as an imperialist. Take advantage of your policy virginity to revamp U.S. relations with the region. Among the proposals you should take to the Trinidad summit:

• Turn the Summit of the Americas into an annual event, instead of one being held every three or four years, as you told me during the campaign. It's the only regular meeting between U.S. and Latin American presidents, and it would force you to focus on hemispheric issues even if you are overwhelmed by more urgent matters elsewhere in the world. That would send a strong signal.

• Resurrect the job of special envoy to the Americas, as you suggested in the campaign. But turn it into a Cabinet-level job, or appoint a very high-profile figure for the position. Be bold: Offer it to former President Bill Clinton as part of other larger diplomatic missions.

• Commit yourself to presenting within the next two years a new comprehensive immigration reform bill that allows an earned path to legalization to more than 11 million undocumented workers. Mexico and Central American economies depend heavily on their family remittances, which are declining rapidly at the very time when these countries are facing a drop in exports to the U.S. market. You have to act swiftly to avert a dangerous crisis on the U.S. southern border.

• Bypass Chávez. Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist leader will do all kinds of pirouettes to grab your attention and seek to propel himself as a world leader. Just ignore him and focus your energies on building better ties with Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Peru.

• Expand President Bush's plan to work with Brazil, Central America and the Caribbean to jointly produce sugar-based ethanol, which is cheaper and environmentally cleaner than U.S.-made corn-based ethanol. This would both help reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil and boost Latin American and Caribbean economies.

• Announce a hemispheric healthcare agreement, whereby Americans with and without health insurance will be able to get lower-cost and more personalized healthcare at U.S.-certified hospitals in Latin American countries. Medical tourism can pour billions of dollars into Latin America, while helping reduce the U.S. budget deficit.


Those are just a few simple ideas to begin with. Good luck, President-elect Obama. Even though your closest ties abroad are with Africa, you have the opportunity of a lifetime to open a new chapter in U.S.-Latin American relations.