What is the opposite of "damage control?" Repair control? Obama's Latin America advisor and director for the Summit of the Americas Jeffrey Davidow did his best to undermine the president's efforts at diplomacy in Trinidad. Responding immediately to Obama's charm offensive, Davidow told reporters that "there is a sizable population in Venezuela, probably the very, very vast majority of Venezuelans who have a more favorable attitude to President Obama than they have to [Hugo Chávez]."
Davidow is a career "diplomat" - his tenure stretches back to 1973, when he served in the U.S. embassy in Chile while the Nixon administration overthrew the last (pre-1990s) social democratic government in South America. He knew exactly what he was doing last weekend: deliberately insulting a foreign head of state - and one with a penchant for responding in kind - so as to re-start the war of words that his boss was trying to put behind us.
This was distinctly different from just pandering to the Republicans or the Florida Cubans - who went ballistic over the Obama-Chávez handshake and smiles that graced the front page of the New York Times. There were many other ways to backtrack and perform that traditional act of political cowardice. Davidow's statement was designed to provoke.
He should be dismissed, and not invited to provide further advice to the present administration.
Davidow's tactic was a common practice during the Bush administration: whenever President Chávez of Venezuela, sometimes prompted by U.S. Members of Congress, tried to pursue a thaw in relations, the Bush administration would deliver one insult after another until Chávez would finally let loose with a scathing response.
Perhaps the most clever of these was then Vice President Dick Cheney's provocation in November 2007, saying that Chávez "does not represent the future of Latin America, and the people of Peru I think deserve better in their leadership. . ."
If you watch the video it does not appear to be a slip of the tongue. And Cheney may not know who the president of Uruguay is, but as an oil man from Halliburton, he can certainly find Venezuela on a map. He probably said "Peru," because he knew that Chávez would respond by saying, "look at this idiot who doesn't even know the difference between Venezuela and Peru." Which Chávez promptly said.
This time Chávez is not taking the bait. In fact, most of the left presidents of Latin America were duly impressed with President Obama's personal attitude - he acted like the former community organizer he is, as he strode over to Chávez to shake his hand.
These presidents seem determined - for now -- to respond to Obama's charm offensive with peace, love and understanding. Even Raul Castro of Cuba responded immediately to Obama's easing of travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans by stating that he is ready to discuss "human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners - everything." He added: "We could be wrong. We admit it. We're human beings."
Chávez, who said he had no doubt that relations with the U.S. would improve under Obama, announced the naming of a new ambassador to the United States, a post that is currently vacant, and discussed this at the summit with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Obama also made some unprecedented statements for a U.S. president, acknowledging that the United States has "at times sought to dictate our terms."
All of this, as well as the continued pressure from presidents including Brazil's Lula da Silva and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner for an end to the Cuba embargo, has widened the rift between Obama and his advisers.
President Evo Morales of Bolivia asked Obama to denounce an apparent assassination plot against him. Last Thursday, three of the five men that the government says were part of this plot were killed in a shootout with police, and evidence seized in their hotel led to a sizeable arms cache. Morales said that if Obama did not repudiate this plot, "I might think it was organized through the embassy."
Obama stated: "I just want to make absolutely clear that I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments, wherever it happens in the hemisphere."
Morales has reason to be suspicious. In addition to past U.S. intervention there, the U.S. Agency for International Development is currently pouring $89 million annually into Bolivia, an amount that is - relative to Bolivia's economy -- equivalent to what the United States is spending on the Iraq war. USAID, which is part of the U.S. State Department, has admitted to funding opposition groups in Bolivia but has refused to disclose all of the groups that it is funding there. This is despite repeated requests under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
One of President Obama's campaign promises was for more transparency in government, including responses to such requests for information that is not classified intelligence. Not only the Bolivian government but the American people have a right to know what groups and activities U.S. tax dollars are funding in Bolivia - especially since some of the opposition groups there have been engaged in violent actions aimed at toppling the elected government.
So long as the administration refuses to release this information, it is difficult to see how Obama can accomplish his stated goal of re-establishing trust.
Latin America's left leaders are willing to do as Obama asks and put aside the grievances of the recent past - including Washington's documented role in overthrowing Venezuela's elected government in 2002. But they cannot ignore the present.
As Obama himself said at the Summit, "The test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds."
This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited on April 22, 2009.