- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

President Obama said Sunday that the outreach this week from Cuba and Venezuela were “positive signs” and said his interaction with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was a good step that can only help.

He was answering critics who have said the president hurt the United States by seeking out and shaking hands with Mr. Chavez and accepting a U.S.-bashing book from the Venezuelan.

“Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably one six-hundredths 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 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, at a press conference wrapping up a four-day trip to Latin America.

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“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.”

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

Along the way he shook hands and exchanged brief greetings with Mr. Chavez and other leftist Latin American leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. He made a pitch for greater cooperation on clean energy, and he absorbed harsh criticism about past U.S. policy, particularly on the trade and travel embargo against Cuba.

Mr. Chavez even gave Mr. Obama a U.S.-bashing book, “Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina,” or “Open Veins of Latin America,” by Eduardo Galeano.

Asked about Mr. Chavez, Mr. Obama said that “his rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflamatory” and said Mr. Chavez’s interference with his neighbors has been “a source of concern.” But Mr. Obama said that engaging with him was the right solution.

He said his overtures to Cuba and Venezuela now must be met with action from those two nations, but said he sees signs of an opening.

“The signals sent so far present at least an opportunity for frank dialogue on a range of issues,” the president said.

He said one thing he learned from the meetings was the effect of soft diplomacy, and he pointed to Cuba’s deployment of doctors to countries throughout the hemisphere as an example of that.

“It’s a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can over time increase our influence and have a beneficial effect when we need to try to move policies that are of concern to us forward in the region,” he said.

Mr. Obama also explained his decision to have his administration boycott a U.N. conference on fighting racism. The president said the previous conference in 2001 became a “counterproductive” Israel-bashing session.

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