If a president's job performance could be judged solely by public diplomacy, it would be easy to forecast success for President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas. The president turned in a stellar performance on his recent visit to Europe and Turkey. There's no reason to think he won't do the same on his first foray into Latin America and the Caribbean.
The meeting of 34 chief executives from throughout the region begins today in Trinidad and Tobago. Even though Obama has never been south of the border before this week and is new on the job, he may be the most popular U.S. chief executive in the region since John F. Kennedy. He will be the star of the show. Unfortunately, that raises expectations unlikely to be met, given the economic crisis at home and a foreign policy agenda that includes two nasty wars, expanding nuclear arsenals by rogue nations and piracy on the high seas. Indeed, it may be asked why Obama should bother to do anything at the summit except drop by, shake hands and wave to the crowds before hurrying home to tend to real business. The answer is that neglect of our closest neighbors carries too many risks.
The region has been free of much of the turmoil that roils other parts of the world. Free markets and democratic forms of government prevail in most countries, making them natural allies of the United States. But the rise of populism led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his recruitment of allies in Bolivia, Nicaragua and elsewhere presents a challenge that this country ignores at its own peril.
The best way to meet it is for Obama to adopt policies that are well within his reach and would be welcomed by the democratic nations of the region.
First, acknowledge the impact that the U.S. economic downturn has had on the region and be as supportive as possible in providing help at a difficult time. Taking steps to increase the lending power of agencies like the Inter-American Development Bank would be a good step.
Second, Obama should address the issue of immigration, which has both practical and symbolic importance throughout the region. This means not only promising to reform the U.S. immigration system, but offering temporary protected status to Haitian immigrants and putting an end to destructive immigration raids on workplaces, homes and other sites where immigrants gather across this country.
Third, Obama must define himself in terms of trade. The pending agreements with Panama and — especially — Colombia are seen throughout the region as a measure of America's willingness to reach out to its friends. Obama, at different times, has appeared to say both yes and no to free trade pacts in the region. It is time for him to be clear. He should opt for free trade.
This week's decision to drop some restrictions on travel and gifts to Cuba by Cuban-Americans shows that Obama understands the need to take political risks to improve U.S. policies that affect Latin America. He made a good start. Let's see if he can keep it up.