Obama trip aimed at reinforcing Latin America ties

BRADLEY BROOKS - Associated Press

It's the eternal Latin American lament: The region's superpower neighbor either ignores it or pushes it around.

Fair or not, that perception will hang over President Barack Obama's first official visit to South America, which starts Saturday in Brazil and stops in Chile and El Salvador.

Each new U.S. president brings renewed expectations of closer ties to Latin America, and few leaders stoked those hopes more than Obama. Just three months after taking office, he told fellow leaders at a Summit of the Americas that a new era of cooperation was dawning.

"I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past," Obama said.

"We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership," he added. "I'm here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration."

Latin Americans have been frustrated by the way the Sept. 11 attacks jerked U.S. attention away from their region after President George W. Bush, too, had promised a new focus to Latin America.

Yet two years after Obama's speech, Latin America is still waiting for action to back the words, and for a new U.S. approach that will help dispel memories of military interventions, support for Cold War-era dictatorships and demands for austere economic policies.

"That speech created high expectations, and he has not delivered," said Mauricio Cardenas, director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "People understand it's because of Afghanistan and Iran, the economy and everything that has happened in the meantime, but, still, he hasn't delivered."

Obama's trip likely will be long on symbolism and short on achievements.

His two-day visit to Brazil will focus on business. Corporate leaders accompanying the president will seek more investments in the region's largest economy and in infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Brazil itself wants more access to the U.S. market for its agricultural goods. It has repeatedly accused the U.S. of protectionist policies and unfair farm subsidies.

But Obama's hands are tied, at least in the short term. The U.S. Congress, however, is unlikely to cut agricultural subsidies and the current farm bill does not expire until 2012.

Brazil also is seeking U.S. support for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council based on its growing clout on the global stage. While Obama has endorsed a similar bid by India, there is little sign that he is unlikely to promote Brazil's yet.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month that she expected "a constructive dialogue with Brazil on this issue during President Obama's trip and going forward."

David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia, noted that Brazil's bid was hurt when the country voted against a new round of U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran in the Security Council last year.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said the symbolic gestures of Obama's tour are vital to future progress on economic and political matters.

That is the case with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who three months into her presidency has expressed a desire to deepen ties with the U.S. that were strained in recent years under her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Rousseff has criticized the human rights record of Iran, a nation Silva warmly embraced, and is backing away from Silva's attempts to mediate the nuclear standoff between Iran and the West. Her foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, was ambassador to the U.S. from 2007-2009. Rousseff is also not showing Silva's enthusiasm for buying the French-made Dassault fighter jet, giving U.S.-based Boeing Corp. renewed hope of winning a $5 billion contract with its F-18 Super Hornet.

"The main goal of Obama's trip is to get back on track U.S. and Brazilian relations, which have arguably been the biggest disappointment of Obama's Latin American policy," Shifter said.

In Chile, Obama is expected to deliver a speech that Clinton has said will "articulate the importance of Latin America to the United States."

Chile's Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno called Obama's visit "a significant signal to Chile and the whole region."

Chile is one of the United States' closest allies in South America, and even a string of leftist presidents strongly embraced U.S.-style capitalism since the end of former dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime in 1990. The two nations signed a free trade agreement in 2003.

Chile's Presidential spokeswoman Ena von Baer told reporters that Obama's visit will include signing of an accord that could include U.S. training for Chilean nuclear engineers. Despite the nuclear disaster facing Japan, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera says his energy-hungry nation needs the option of nuclear power.

The Chileans are also expected to push for admitting their citizens into the U.S. visa waiver program.

Obama will visit El Salvador at its most violent moment since the civil war of the 1980s. Cocaine seizures are rapidly rising and the murder rate is climbing, in part due to a rise in local drug dealing.

Central America was allotted $165 million for the $1.8 billion Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico, and the U.S. Congress last year created a separate Central America Regional Security Initiative with a total of $248 million to date.

Local leaders say that's still not enough to battle powerful cartels financed by the U.S. drug market, and expanded security aid is likely to be a topic during Obama's visit.

Shifter said the U.S. likely sees El Salvador as its best partner in combatting the poverty and violence in Central America, and Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes told business leaders this week that his nation is "recognized for its leadership and desire for integration" in the area's fight against poverty and crime.

"The government of President Obama has a special interest in establishing with El Salvador an alliance for growth," Funes said, without offering details.

Evan Ellis, an expert on Latin America at the National Defense University, said Obama's administration, like so many before it, has been forced to put the region on the back burner because of crises elsewhere.

"Latin America has long suffered the neglected-wife syndrome, where the husband, the U.S., comes back and says, 'I've been a bad partner but things are going to change,'" said Ellis. "That lasts a couple of days, and then the cycle begins anew."