He didn’t call it off. Despite partisan griping about the First Family’s taking a ‘vacation’ in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador at the same time the wheels were coming off in Japan and Libya, the president stuck to the plan: a five-day, three-nation Latin American trip just concluded. Any other weekend, it was the kind of trip that would decorate television news with extravagant scenery and tales of vast economic and social potential. But last Saturday and Sunday weren’t any other weekend, not with our cruise missiles hitting Tripoli, and radiation being found in the milk and spinach of Tokyo.
Still, he stuck it out when he had ample excuse to shut it down, gamely visiting iconic sites in Rio with his adorable family, including Copacabana Beach, a favela slum, and the Christ the Redeemer statue that always gets destroyed in disaster and alien invasion movies.
With sprawling Rio scrambling to patch up its sore spots before hosting the 2016 summer Olympics, a particularly charming vignette had the president, First Lady Michelle and their daughters, Malia and Sash,a kicking around a soccer ball in soccer’s hallowed capital.
Wherever he went in Brazil and later in Chile and El Salvador, the president was greeted by adoring crowds, folks who seemed enormously impressed by the first mixed-race president’s first extensive visit to the famously mixed-race continent next door.
The trip was easily more defensible than his unusually tone-deaf golf outing the day after the tsunami ravaged Japan’s northeast coast. That’s because over-shadowed by crushing events in Japan and Libya as it was, Obama had a respectable agenda in Latin America; business in both Brazil, which will soon be our fifth most important trading partner, and Chile, where the Chinese are making a big push to be the go-to super-power. In war-ravaged and still violence prone El Salvador, from which millions have fled seeking a better life in the United States, often without proper documentation, the topic fittingly was immigration reform or rather the lack of it.
And with our nuclear guys monitoring Japan’s leaky reactors and the military die finally cast in North Africa, he figured correctly that Latin America is more important long-term to the United States than any marginal increase in crisis management gained from being in the Oval Office.
We get more oil from Latin America than we get from Libya, and the New World is a hugely more important market for U.S. manufactured goods and services than the desert kingdoms of North Africa and the Mid-East combined.
There was also the interesting sub-text to the Latin American trip that I would have made the headline if I worked in the White House, especially given recent events in the turbulent Arab world.
There is hope after dictatorship.
"As two nations who have struggled over many generations to perfect our own democracies, the United States and Brazil know that the future of the Arab world will be determined by its people," Obama said in a speech he made in Rio, defining the news peg most of the media missed or discounted. "No one can say for certain how this change will end, but I do know that change is not something that we should fear."
The message is that even as Latin America has been transformed in recent decades, evolving from dictatorship to democracy, so too the Mid-East can evolve. The United States supported 18 dictatorships in Latin America just since 1945. Now the continent is universally democratic, Castro’s Cuba the lone exception.
And speaking of no fear, most of those scary radicals we fought against in Latin America, with unconditional excess on both sides are now part of the democratic process. Two of the three national leaders he visited, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes were card-carrying left-wing militants committed to defeating right-wing military governments supported by the United States.
What is interesting with both Funes and Rousseff is how remote their radical ties seem. After throwing her lot in with self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries, President Rousseff was even imprisoned and tortured. Now she’s all about Brazil’s emerging role as a regional energy and economic superpower, all pro-business and enterprise.
In El Salvador, his host President Mauricio Funes, a former reporter, heads a left-wing coalition founded by former guerillas that came in from that particularly vicious battlefield.
In a rushed schedule toward the end of the trip, and no doubt yearning to get back to Washington to deal with the burgeoning political controversy about our military intervention in Libya, President Obama also found time to visit the tomb of assassinated Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the heroic activist cleric cut down by right-wing murderers while celebrating mass.
Romero’s 1980 death accelerated the region’s bloody civil wars that ripped apart Central America’s social fabric, unleashed that torrent of refugees, and led to President Reagan’s 1986 immigration amnesty, now so reviled by conservatives.
President Obama made clear his hope that regional poverty will be mitigated and that opportunity at home will mean Latinos have less incentive to flee to the United States. But even as their economies grow and the ideological struggles of the 20th Century fade, the remaining shadow on the southern horizon is drug violence. That is the real threat to our national security, far more relevant to the long-term interests of the United States than the fate of Muammar Qaddafi.
For all those reasons, the president was right to go.
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.