President Obama and the Americas: Beyond the Trinidad Summit

05/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Barack Obama accomplished his immediate objectives at the Summit of the Americas. He conveyed an attractive approach to Latin America that is consistent with his overall worldview: confident, open, genuinely interested in consultation but also committed to expressing U.S. objectives, and ready to move away from unilateralism and presumption without being defensive. The substance and style of his prepared address, his informal comments and even his banter and body language, as well as his thoughtful remarks at the final press conference, were all very positively received. The improvement in the atmospherics of official U.S.-Latin American relations was stunning.

All this is fine, as far as it goes, but that is not necessarily very far. Photo-ops and well-crafted statements cannot substitute for implementing policies that the new Administration needs to pursue in the Americas. The welcome new tone of inter-American relations could be reversed if raised expectations are disappointed, as has often happened in the past.

To build on the momentum of the Trinidad Summit, the Administration should follow up expeditiously on the main approaches that resonated in Port of Spain.

Few, if any, meaningful policy initiatives can be crafted at the level of generality necessary to include more than 30 diverse countries, ranging from Brazil to Grenada, Argentina to Haiti. The United States should now follow up with clusters of countries with shared concerns to work out initiatives on key issues. The Administration should concentrate attention on the closest neighbors of the United States--Mexico and countries of Central America and the Caribbean--in order to work on the shared concerns posed by their unusual degree of functional integration with the United States, and on strategic cooperation with Brazil, both within the Western Hemisphere and beyond.

The most important issues to address soon are economic recovery, investment in energy and especially in renewable energy projects, new approaches to the narcotics trade and the related issues of arms and financial flows going south, and immigration. None of these are easy, but the Administration should tackle them with a sense of urgency.

The Administration should promptly harvest low-hanging fruit: gaining Congressional approval of the already-negotiated Free Trade Agreements with Panama and Colombia; expanding the Inter-American Development Bank's capital, needed to fund infrastructure and energy projects; and providing the lending for the microfinance and social development the President announced in Port of Spain.

Criticism expressed by Newt Gingrich and others about Mr. Obama's apparent weakness in exchanging friendly smiles with Hugo Chavez, welcoming expressed openness to dialogue from Raúl Castro, and reassuring Bolivia's Evo Morales that the United States will not support the violent overthrow of his government, are frozen in an outmoded and discredited stance, and Mr. Obama is right to dismiss them. The Administration needs to carefully explore the prospects for rapprochement in all three cases, by focusing on mutual confidence-building through limited and reciprocal steps.

It makes sense to exchange ambassadors with Venezuela and Bolivia, subject to the usual assurances. Washington should look for opportunities to work on such shared concerns as narcotics and the environment. If Chavez reverts to attack, as he well may, the Administration should use the rope-a-dope technique that Muhammad Ali demonstrated so brilliantly: avoiding being an easy target while Chávez flails away.

On Cuba, the Obama Administration has begun well, by not only reversing the hardening of sanctions on travel and remittances the Bush Administration had imposed, but also by doing away even with some prior restrictions, and announcing a willingness to facilitate investment in improvement of communications, including establishing fiber-optic cable and satellite connections between the United States and Cuba. The Administration has taken another symbolically important step by indicting Luis Posada Carriles for his alleged terrorist activities against Cuba, reversing years of previous unwillingness by U.S. authorities to do so. And the President's simple statement that the United States seeks a new relationship with Cuba was important, precisely because it was not accompanied, as statements by the previous administration had been, by calling first for change in the Cuban regime.

Navigating the next stages in the U.S.-Cuba relationship will be complex, for both sides have to overcome years of distrust, mutual hostility and propaganda. The guiding principles for the Obama Administration should be to improve the prospects for healthy relations in the medium term, to avoid being trapped into letting Cuba dictate the pace of steps the United States should take in its own interest, and to remain true to the basic tenets of U.S. policy, including a commitment to the protection of individual human rights. Implementing these guidelines will take skillful diplomacy.

Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, is co-editor of The Obama Administration and the Americas: Agenda for Change (Brookings Institution Press, 2009).