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Compañero Obama? Obama Mends Fences with Latin America

The last time George W. Bush went to Latin America, protesters flooded the streets. Things have changed quite a bit since then.

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Colombia's Uribe was in on Obama's plan at the summit, hence his giddiness when he approached the U.S. president to ask for his autograph. Obama complied, writing, "To President Uribe, with admiration."

Uribe joked of the note to reporters: "Barack Obama signed this little letter for me ... I'm going to send this to get framed."

But is Uribe really the kind of fan Obama needs? The Colombian leader has been regularly linked to violent right-wing paramilitary groups, implicated in gross human rights violations. Just recently, Diego Murillo, a former paramilitary and drug lord in Colombia, said in a U.S. court that he helped fund Uribe's 2002 election campaign.

And on April 29, Britain quietly announced they would end all military support to the Uribe regime due to his government's extensive human-rights violations and links to violent paramilitary groups. The military aid had been going on for almost a decade.  

In a written statement, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said his government "shares the concern … that there are officers and soldiers of the Colombian armed forces who have been involved in, or allowed, abuses … Our bilateral human-rights projects with the Colombian ministry of defense will cease."

According to The Guardian, "Investigators are looking into 1,296 cases since 2002 of reported executions of civilians by army soldiers who dressed the victims in rebel uniforms and planted weapons on them to present them as legitimate guerrilla casualties."

Open Veinsin the White House

At the summit, Obama also said that he "didn't come to debate the past, I came to speak about the future." Yet the past crept up at every turn. First, Chavez handed Obama a copy of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's 1971 anti-imperialist book, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent , "to learn about our history, [because] it is on the basis of this history that we have to rebuild."

Perhaps Chavez handed Obama the book in part because he knew that Jeffrey Davidow, the U.S. coordinator for Obama's summit meeting, was also the U.S. ambassador to Chile from 1971 to '74, during the U.S.-backed military coup against the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The U.S.' funding and support for the violent reign of dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet is well documented.

At the summit, Davidow commented, possibly because of this bloody past, that the more right-leaning governments of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia are "forward-looking, not backward-looking" and that the regional call for lifting the embargo against Cuba is "part of the historical baggage that Latin America carried with it and is almost a reflexive suspicion or anti-Americanism."

In a recent column, Tom Hayden wrote of a declassified document from 1974 in which Davidow communicated with Chilean officials regarding a "conspiracy on the part of the enemies of Chile to paint the junta in the worst possible terms."

This violent dictatorship casts a shadow across each page of Galeano's now-classic book -- which, after Chavez handed it to Obama, shot to No. 2 on the Amazon best-seller list. One can only hope that Obama will read this book and improve U.S.-Latin American relations in the post-Bush era, relations that could be marked by camaraderie rather than blood and bullets.

In the afterword to Open Veins , Galeano writes about the stories of where his book ended up after its publication:

The most heartening response came not from the book pages in the press but from real incidents in the streets. The girl who was quietly reading Open Veins to her companion in a bus in Bogotá, and finally stood up and read it aloud to all the passengers. The woman who fled from Santiago in the days of the Chilean bloodbath with this book wrapped inside her baby's diapers. The student who went from one bookstore to another for a week in Buenos Aires ' Calle Corrientes, reading bits of it in each store because he hadn’t the money to buy it. And the most-favorable reviews came not from any prestigious critic but from the military dictatorships that praised the book by banning it.

 
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