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What Obama Must Do On His First Official Trip to Latin America

“Eighty percent of success is showing up,” said Woody Allen. President Obama’s upcoming trip to Latin America, which outside of a trip to Mexico will be the first visit of his life, could jumpstart a policy that has left observers here and in the region wondering where he’s been.

After pledging a policy of dialogue and partnership, our friends are still waiting for either – as the administration has failed to offer any novel initiative to advance our common interests. Our foes are watching, too. A passive policy toward Venezuela has left strongman Hugo Chávez pressing forward on an audacious anti-U.S. agenda, including offering Iran and narcotraffickers a safe haven for their dangerous criminal activities.

When the president was first elected, nations in the region welcomed the fresh approach favored by Obama – that Washington should forge a policy with the region, not for the region. He would not impose an agenda but shape a common vision with our neighbors. 

Unfortunately, the president’s Latin America team has failed to follow through with any purposeful dialogue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gamely traveled, more than any of her predecessors, to Latin America but her regional advisors have failed to formulate a single concrete initiative with any one of the 34 countries or with the region as a whole. 

Instead, Venezuela has used its petrodollars to undermine the Organization of American States and has created several rival bodies that consciously exclude the United States. Most regional leaders are not interested in Chávez’s populist agenda, but they are unwilling to propose a rival vision when the United States seems so disinterested.

On the bilateral front, relations with key countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia have taken a decided turn for the worse in the last two years. President Bush – not a universally beloved figure in Latin America – managed to personally forge historically productive ties with leaders of those three countries. 

Without the ballast of presidential engagement, Brazilian diplomats nearly derailed the U.S. push for Iran sanctions last year. Mexican President Felipe Calderón arrived in Washington excoriating U.S. diplomacy and anti-drug cooperation. Political appointees in the State Department have down-graded relations with Colombia, a key anti-drug ally and democratic bulwark in South America; and, thus far Obama has been unwilling to spend political capital to advance a trade agreement with that country (and another with Panama). Our friends are left thinking that they are on their own.

The perceived lack of interest by the United States also sends a message to Chávez and like-minded leaders that they can abet corruption, illicit drug trafficking, Iranian adventurism and terrorism with impunity. Several countries have blatantly refused to cooperate with U.S. anti-drug efforts, and Chávez has become a pivotal partner with narcotraffickers from Mexico and the Caribbean Basin to West Africa and Europe. 

Today, Iran uses its alliance with Venezuela to work around U.N. and U.S. financial sanctions, mine uranium, tap nuclear technology and sow its terrorist network. In the absence of any recognition of the problem, let alone an effective response from Washington, Iran has expanded its influence and activities in Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, and Central America.

The engagement vacuum has had global consequences. China and Russia used to tread lightly as they foraged for raw materials or customers for their arms in the Americas. Today, due to provocative U.S. complacency, Beijing is moving slowly but surely to displace the United States as a customer for South American oil. And both nations are using Venezuela as platform to funnel weapons to Iran and terrorist groups and to offer surreptitious support to Iran’s rogue nuclear program.

President Obama can get in the game by renewing his commitment to constructive relations with democratic leaders from across the political spectrum. Brazil, Chile and El Salvador (where the president’s tour will take him) are very different countries. However, each of these countries are governed by elected leaders who know that a mix of free markets, democracy, and the rule of law is the only sustainable solution to poverty.

In addition, the president should not be shy about saying to responsible leaders that genuine partnership means confronting common threats as a community. To do that, he must use his trip to issue a wake-up call to his team that the Americas are important and that growing threats on our doorstep can no longer be ignored.

Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.

Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization ofAmerican States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients, and contributes to www.interamericansecuritywatch.com.

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