- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

President Obama said Sunday that his several brief meetings with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were good steps and that positive Cuban and Venezuelan responses to his overtures were repudiations of the Bush administration’s approach to diplomacy.

Completing his four-day Latin American visit in Trinidad, Mr. Obama rebutted critics who said he hurt the U.S. by seeking out Mr. Chavez and receiving a U.S.-bashing book from him.

The gesture shot the little-known book - “Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina” or “The Open Veins of Latin America,” by Eduardo Galeano - to No. 2 on Amazon.com’s list Sunday night.

“Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably one-six-hundredth of the United States’. They own Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez, we are endangering the strategic interest of the United States,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference wrapping up his trip.

“You would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela,” he said.

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But some in the U.S. saw Mr. Obama’s outreach - his Chavez meeting also yielded a widely publicized photo of the two men shaking hands - as a mistake.

“When you’re talking about the prestige of the United States and the presidency of the United States, you have to be careful who you’re seen joking around with. And I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez,” Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

But Mr. Obama called the trip a success, saying the engagement was worth the criticism.

He was criticized during the presidential campaign for promising that sort of engagement, including by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then his Democratic primary rival but now his secretary of state. He said Sunday he’s been proved right.

“The whole notion was that if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness,” he said.

“The American people didn’t buy it,” Mr. Obama said. “And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it - because it doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Obama met Thursday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Mexico City, then traveled to Trinidad, where he attended the Summit of the Americas from Friday night through Sunday morning.

Unlike his recent swing through Europe, this time Mr. Obama met with leaders who are occasionally openly hostile to the U.S.

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