- 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.

He shook hands and exchanged short greetings with Mr. Chavez and other leftist Latin American leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

He also made a pitch for greater cooperation on clean energy, absorbed harsh criticism about past U.S. policy, particularly on the trade and travel embargo against Cuba, and he said the U.S. has made mistakes in dealing with the region in the past.

Some of the leftist leaders did not waste the chance to attack the U.S. in so high-profile a venue. Several said the U.S. has a history of meddling in their affairs.

Asked about Mr. Chavez in particular, Mr. Obama said, “His rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflammatory,” he said, and his interference with Venezuela’s neighbors has been “a source of concern.”

But Mr. Obama said engaging with Mr. Chavez was the right solution and that his overtures to Cuba and Venezuela must now be met with action from those two nations. But he 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. He pointed to Cuba’s deployment of doctors to countries throughout the hemisphere as an example.

“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 defended his administration’s boycott of a U.N. conference on racism. The president said the conference in 2001 became a “counterproductive” Israel-bashing session.

Black members of Congress were critical of Mr. Obama’s boycott, saying it went against the same principles of outreach he has espoused.

“This decision is inconsistent with the administration’s policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with, expressed by President Obama during the G-20 and on other recent occasions,” Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat and Congressional Black Caucus chairman, said this weekend.

The Durban Review Conference will focus on racism and xenophobia, but Mr. Obama said this year’s conference appears to be adopting much of the language to which the U.S. and Israel objected in 2001.

“Our participation would have involved us putting our imprimatur on something we don’t believe,” Mr. Obama said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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