Published March 18, 2011
WASHINGTON – A nuclear crisis in Japan, fighting in Libya, turmoil in the Mideast and the threat of a government shutdown at home. It's a tough time for President Barack Obama to leave on a foreign trip -- to Latin America.
Over the next five days, Obama is to travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in what the White House is casting as a mission to build job-creating opportunities for the United States and to address regional security concerns.
The trip, considered by many in the hemisphere as long overdue, is also an effort to solidify relationships that have slipped two years after Obama declared "a new chapter of engagement" with the region.
In that time, China has expanded its economic footprint in the region and has surpassed the United States as Brazil's top trade partner.
Despite the competing, pressing demands on the president's attention, the White House has been determined to proceed with the trip, emphasizing the potential the region holds for U.S. economic growth.
"It's imperative that the United States not disengage from these regions," deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. "When we disengage, our ability to advance partnerships that serve our interest suffers."
Obama's planned departure was a day after the U.N. Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from attacks by Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
In Latin America, Obama will meet with recently elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.
Each country chosen by the administration offers Obama a different look at a diverse hemisphere.
Yet in selecting those three, Obama is reaching out to nations whose political leaders have displayed a pragmatic governing style and where anti-Americanism is on the wane. As such they stand in stark contrast to Venezuela and Bolivia, led by leftist populists known for agitating against the U.S.
At the same time, in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, Obama's showcasing three democracies that have emerged from turbulent pasts and that, in his administration's view, serve as examples of a pathway out of the current upheaval in the Middle East.
The trip also presents Obama with an opportunity to spell out his doctrine for the region -- much like he did for the Middle East in Cairo in June 2009. Obama is saving that moment for Monday in Santiago, Chile, where he will reiterate his goal of engaging with countries in the region as equals and emphasize their own role in becoming better neighbors.
Obama is not traveling with a basket of ready-made accomplishments or major agreements to feature during the trip. Indeed, when it comes to trade, he embarks on the trip empty-handed.
Pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama remain unfinished, provoking demands from the business sector and Republicans that he complete the deals.
First Lady Michelle Obama, her mother and the Obamas' two daughters will conduct their own brand of diplomacy on the trip, attending a series of separate events focused on young people, particularly in disadvantaged communities.
Obama first traveled to the region in April 2009 when he attended a 34-nation summit in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Since then, however, the president's greatest attention to Latin America has been devoted to drug-related violence in Mexico as other issues in the region took a back seat to domestic and international priorities.
"I think his honeymoon in the region is about to end. He's aware of that," said Mauricio Cardenas, a former Colombian economics minister and head of the Latin American Initiative at Brookings. "So he now needs to go and deliver on his promise. When he first met the leaders of this hemisphere, he created a lot of expectations."
Still, Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, said Obama is "seen very, very positively" in much of Latin America. According to Gallup, majorities ranging from 67 percent in Chile to 55 percent in Brazil approve of Obama's job performance, though those numbers have been slipping.
Brazil is quickly becoming an economic powerhouse -- the seventh largest economy in the world, considered an emerging power along with Russia, India and China, and a force in the group of 20 influential economies. Rousseff has indicated a desire to improve relations with the U.S. that had grown strained under her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Roett said Obama as an African-American president has the potential of being especially well-received in Rio de Janeiro, given the strong presence of African culture in Brazil.
Obama is making an overt bid for U.S. investment in Brazil and is seeking to find economic advantage in Brazil's offshore oil reserves and the infrastructure demands it will face hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. He plans to address a business summit organized by the U.S.-Brazil Business Council. Also in Brazil for the visit will be Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Still, Obama is not likely to deliver on key Brazilian issues, including Brazil's desire to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and its desire for changes in U.S. farm policy that would ease or remove tariffs on Brazilian ethanol.
Chile is a U.S. trading partner that has displayed solid economic growth and has a broad-based middle class. The dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet now behind it, Chile has established itself as a resolute democracy. It enhanced its international image by its response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck it last year and by heroic efforts in the rescue of 33 miners stuck deep underground for 69 days last year.
Chile is seeking an agreement with the U.S. for civilian nuclear cooperation, including programs to train Chilean engineers in the United States. Pinera has said that despite Japan's nuclear crisis and Chile's earthquake prone geography, nuclear power is a necessary option for Chile.
In El Salvador, Obama is looking for a partner to fight poverty and drug-related violence that has bedeviled Central America. Under Funes, El Salvador's economy grew at a rate of 3.3 percent last year and is projected to grow at 5.3 percent in 2011, greater than the rate projected for the U.S.
But El Salvador's murder rate has been climbing, as have cocaine seizures in the country. Funes is likely to ask for a greater share of the $1.8 billion Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico and Central America.