Latin American leaders railed against the U.S. during President Barack Obama’s first trip to the region, turning what was intended to mark a new direction in relations into a history lesson that chastised “Yankee troop” interventions and U.S.-dictated economic policies. Obama arrived at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago promising to “listen and learn” from regional leaders. He got an earful.
In the weekend’s first speeches, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner voiced grievances on issues ranging from the U.S. drug war to American support for counterinsurgency movements of the 1980s. Both urged Obama to end the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, the only country in the Americas excluded from the 34-nation summit.
“For many years, there have been traumatic relations,” Fernandez said. “I want you to know, Obama, that this is in no way a reproach against you. It’s simply an exercise to look back at what happened.”
Obama is trying to revive U.S. influence in Latin America that waned under President George W. Bush as the war on terror diverted attention to the Middle East and the region expanded economic and diplomatic ties with U.S. rivals such as Russia and China.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who last month called Obama an “ignoramus” when it comes to Latin America, gave Obama a Spanish-language copy of Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano’s book “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.”
Chavez greeted Obama with a hand shake, signaling the good will Obama’s election has generated even among America’s fiercest critics in Latin America.
Ortega, who said he was upset that he was forced to wait for three hours on the tarmac after landing, spoke for 45 minutes. His speech included a reference to invasion by “Yankee troops.”
Nicaragua’s president said he was “ashamed” Cuba wasn’t invited to participate in the summit and called Obama’s lifting last week of travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban- Americans “insufficient and inacceptable.”
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told Obama during a meeting today with leaders from the Union of South American Nations that another Summit of the Americas without Cuba was unacceptable.
“The big test is progress in relations with Cuba,” said Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim. “A small step was taken in the right direction. But there needs to be direct dialogue, discreet in the beginning. That’s what Lula told Obama needs to take place.”
Cuba is symbolically important to the region’s leaders, many of whom entered politics under military regimes and looked to the communist country and its longtime leader Fidel Castro, 82, for inspiration and support.
Kirchner and Ortega “were there to push the envelope,” said Congressman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat who attended last night’s opening ceremony. “I don’t think that was a surprise to anyone in this room, though it took Ortega some time to do it. But Obama rose above it.”
Obama, speaking after Ortega and Fernandez, said the U.S. is seeking a new beginning in its relationship with Cuba and wants an “equal partnership” with other countries in the Americas.
Regional leaders “cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements,” Obama said.
“You can’t blame the U.S. for every problem in this hemisphere,” Obama said. “I am very grateful that President Ortega didn’t blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”