President Barack Obama, seeking to warm up relations with Latin America, spent the first full day of the Summit of the Americas on Saturday trying to play down his celebrity. "I have much to learn," he declared in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He promised a new hemispheric growth fund, an initiative to increase Caribbean security and a partnership to develop alternative energy sources and fight global warming, while listening to their complaints about past U.S. interference in the region and even reaching out to Venezuela's fiery leftist leader.
Elbowing to see new guy
The president was mobbed during the opening plenary session by delegates elbowing their way toward him for photographs — among them Panamanian singer and actor Ruben Blades, who accompanied Panama's foreign minister to the session. "Here in this room, and on this dais, we see the diversity of the Americas," Obama said in his opening speech.
President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and President Michelle Bachelet of Chile said the region's diversity should be more fully appreciated with the presence of the first black U.S. president. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales also mentioned Obama's race in their remarks — Chavez as a sign he might more closely identify with the region's poor, Morales in more skeptical tones.
'I want to be your friend'
Chavez warmed to Obama at the summit. "I want to be your friend," Chavez told Obama on Saturday, repeating in English what he told Obama the previous night at their first meeting. The socialist leader announced he will send an ambassador back to Washington, after expelling the U.S. ambassador to his country in September in solidarity with Morales.
Chavez gave Obama a book Saturday, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano. The 1971 book documents how European and American commercial interests have dominated and afflicted Latin America since the Spanish conquest. It's a favorite among left-leaning Latin Americans from Argentina to Mexico. "I thought it was one of Chavez's books," Obama said later. "I was going to give him one of mine." Obama's advisers cited a crowded presidential nightstand in saying the president might not get around to reading it. Also, "I think it's in Spanish, so that might be a tad on the difficult side," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Not so enamored
Morales, the Bolivian president, claimed Saturday that Washington continues to conspire against him, despite Obama's pledge of a new era of mutual respect toward Latin America. "In Bolivia … one doesn't feel any change. The policy of conspiracy continues," Morales said. He wanted Obama to publicly repudiate an alleged assassination plot, though Morales did not allege U.S. involvement.