- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2011

The U.S. has lacked a coherent Latin American policy for the past decade, regional experts say, leaving a vacuum that China and other potential adversaries have filled by showering the area with attention, investment, arms and foreign aid.

President Obama hopes to begin to change that over the next five days with his first trip to South America, more than halfway through his first term, with visits to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. But the challenge he faces is underscored by newly elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s selection of China — which in 2009 overtook the U.S. as Brazil’s largest trading partner — for her first foreign trip outside of South America.

It’s not just in Brazil, now the world’s seventh-largest economy.

With the Latin American market a growing attraction, other international competitors are expanding their influence. A free-trade agreement between Peru and China went into effect earlier this year, and Beijing is eyeing a rail link through Colombia to rival the Panama Canal. Russia is helping Argentina and other Latin nations - including Hugo Chavez’s anti-U.S. government in Venezuela - develop their nuclear energy programs, while also displacing the U.S. as the largest arms exporter to the region.

Even more worrisome to Washington, experts say that Iran may be mining for uranium in Venezuela as the U.S. and its international allies warn that Iran’s Islamic regime is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

“People are saying we’re losing influence in Latin America — we are abdicating influence in Latin America,” said Joel D. Hirst, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There was so much hype around Obama’s election and Latin Americans feel abandoned.”

Indeed, two years after Mr. Obama used a speech in Trinidad and Tobago to call for a new, less- paternalistic U.S.-Latin American relationship, a series of diplomatic missteps and the lack of what analysts describe as a clear policy toward the region has left leaders feeling his words in 2009 ring hollow.

For its part, the White House contends it has been engaged but also says it does not see relations with the region as a battle with Beijing.

“Obviously, China has a broad set of relationships around the world, as do we. We don’t believe that it needs to be a kind of zero-sum competition in the Americas,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters this week.

The president’s trip is not without domestic political complications. Some congressional Republicans have questioned the president’s engagement with crises abroad — Japan, the Middle East — and at home — spending battles on Capitol Hill — as Mr. Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters, jets south.

“The president is taking this trip because he is committed to growing the economy [and] rebalancing our national security posture,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday, rejecting suggestions that the trip be delayed or postponed. “He remains confident he can fully execute his job when he is on the road.”

Noting that Mr. Obama is hugely popular in the region, Mr. Rhodes said that goodwill “makes it easier” for countries like those in Latin America to move beyond past grievances and cooperate with the United States.

While U.S. budget woes likely will rule out any grand initiatives, Mr. Obama nevertheless has a packed schedule, visiting four cities in five days: Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil; Santiago, Chile, and San Salvador.

In Brasilia on Saturday morning, Mr. Obama will meet with Ms. Rousseff, a former leftist guerilla under Brazil’s military dictatorship and a protege of the wildly popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Relations between Brasilia and Washington cooled in the last days of Mr. Lula da Silva’s term, and Ms. Rousseff has welcomed the visit as Brazil steps up its profile as a regional and global economic and cultural power.

Mr. Obama will drop by a forum of U.S.-Brazilian business executives, deliver a speech in Rio de Janeiro, which is gearing up to host the 2016 Olympics, and, according to local media, tour one of the city’s favelas.

Energy is sure to come up given Brazil’s recent, significant oil discoveries — including the biggest deepwater oil field uncovered in decades — and the country’s heavy investment in renewable energy such as hydroelectric power and sugarcane-based ethanol.

In Chile, which is one of the U.S.’s closest allies in Latin America, Mr. Obama plans a broad policy speech that some are describing as the region’s version of his 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo, in which officials say he is likely to hold up Chile as a model of democratic reform. Mr. Obama and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera were slated to sign a nuclear cooperation pact, but the earthquake-induced nuclear crisis in Japan could affect that plan.

Mr. Obama’s final stop in El Salvador is his only one in Central America, a region that is central to U.S. efforts to stem the flow of drugs and cartel-related violence.

Mr. Obama is hardly the first president to come under fire for not paying enough attention to Latin America. Former President Bill Clinton didn’t visit the region until his second term in office, and former President George W. Bush’s administration was seen as far more preoccupied with fighting terrorism and its two wars in the Middle East after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But analysts say the Obama administration has made a number of key missteps undermining U.S. ties with the region, beginning with his decision in April 2009 to lift some restrictions on travel to Cuba but leave in place the embargo.

There was also criticism of the president handling of the ouster last year of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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