By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Four years ago, President George W. Bush arrived in Mar del Plata, Argentina, escorted by U.S. Navy ships and hounded by thousands of demonstrators who rejected a U.S. initiative to create a hemispheric free trade zone. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivian then-presidential candidate Evo Morales joined football star Diego Maradona and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in a parallel demonstration that filled a soccer stadium with anti-Bush, anti-U.S. slogans.
This past weekend, the Summit of the Americas met in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and the mood was much calmer. When it was over, many in the Latin American news media joined their nations’ leaders in hailing what they described as the start of a new era in inter-American relations.
Latin American columnists this morning confirmed the consensus emerging from Trinidad over the weekend: the region is ready for a rapprochement with the U.S.
“Few times had a gringo president arrived in a summit of the American continent like Barack Obama did last Friday in Trinidad and Tobago,” Colombian newsweekly Semana said. “The president had solved a great number of the things his Latin American colleagues were going to ask from him.” Semana mentioned Obama’s statements in favor of immigration reform, his vows to help Mexico fight drug cartels and last week’s softening of U.S. policy towards Cuba.
Obama’s trip, which started with a visit to Mexico earlier last week, helped “break the isolation and the great tension that Bush had created in South America, especially through (Obama’s) change of attitude towards Cuba and towards Chávez,” wrote progressive politician Manuel Camacho Solís in Mexico City’s El Universal.
“In two days, the U.S. president has launched a totally new policy towards Latin America,” wrote Univision anchor Jorge Ramos Ávalos in his regular column on Mexican newspaper Reforma.
In Argentina, Clarín newspaper’s Paula Lugones said Latin America had received a dose of Obama “in pure state.”
“Being interested in the problems of others and not imposing unilateral solutions is his mark, which requires a dose of realism to which the world is not accustomed. In this sense, the summit was a success. It was full of open ears, rapprochement gestures and good will… and it is a big achievement if all you remember is Mar del Plata. But hugs and kisses can be soon forgotten.”
Not everyone was sold on the new regional atmosphere, however. In Reforma, Roberto Zamarripa wrote, “Things are where they always were but there is a strange sensation that everything has changed.”
After the summit, officials from the most influential governments in the region were elated and even surprised at the lack of confrontation they saw. “We’ve never seen such a friendly atmosphere,” said Brazilian foreign affairs minister Celso Amorim, according to newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
Brazilian President Lula da Silva said that, at the meeting, “Latin America and the U.S. possibly created a new way of looking at each other, of overcoming our differences and of debating them with a lot of maturity,” according to El Universal.
“The expectations for a ‘wuthering summit’ were diluted,” said Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, “in part thanks to the diplomatic talents of President Barack Obama, who managed to wrest compliments even from the presidents most unfriendly to the U.S., like Venezuelan Hugo Chávez and Honduran Manuel Zelaya.”
“Those who thought this was going to be a fight and a screaming match have come out disappointed,” said OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. “A new, very positive spirit could be noticed.”
Even Chávez was glowing after the summit. “Everything ended as it was supposed to, the meeting was a success. Of all the summits I’ve attended this one was, without a doubt, the most successful one.”
(Chávez has been a contentious participant at other international conferences, like the Ibero-American Summit in November 2007 in Chile, where he interrupted Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which prompted the Spanish King Juan Carlos I to famously ask Chávez, “Why don’t you shut up?“)
Colombian officials were particularly elated that President Alvaro Uribe, one of the staunchest American allies in the region, got to sit down for a 45-minute talk with Obama. The meeting apparently gave a renewed impulse to a proposed free trade agreement between the two nations.
While in the U.S. Obama is already being criticized for talking to Chávez, the gesture has been well received in Latin America.
Mexican leftist newspaper La Jornada Obama managed “to reduce tensions with his leftist peers in the region, who highlighted the start of a new era in the relationship between Latin America and Washington.”
“Everyone expected a fight between Obama and Chavez, between Obama and Evo Morales, between Obama and (Ecuadorian President) Rafael Correa, between Obama and (Nicaraguan President) Daniel Ortega…,” said Brazilian President Da Silva Monday morning during his weekly radio show, Agencia Efe reported. “And what happened? That people became civilized and learned to debate democratically and to live together with their differences.”