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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.

When George W. Bush went to Latin America, Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona called him "human trash," and protesters flooded the streets.

Now, when Barack Obama visited, leftist Venezuela President Hugo Chavez wanted to shake his hand, the right-wing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, asked for his autograph and the anti-imperialist book Open Veins of Latin America made an unlikely journey to the White House.

What does the April Summit of the Americas say about the past and future of U.S.-Latin American relations?

"While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms," Obama told 34 of the hemisphere's presidents at the summit. "But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership … There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values."

Such intentions were perhaps most clearly represented in the now-famous handshake between Obama and Chavez. At the start of the summit, Obama strode across the room to initiate a warm greeting with Chavez -- much to the chagrin of right-wing pundits and politicians in Washington.

Dick Cheney found the handshake "disturbing," and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said, "I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez."

Obama responded to critics by explaining, "Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th 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 that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."

The encounters between Obama and Chavez were followed up with concrete plans to improve relations. Both countries agreed to restore the ambassadors in each nation; the diplomats had been pulled last September when oppression of supporters of Bolivian President Evo Morales was linked to U.S. funding and support.

Obama later said at the summit, "We recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways."

Such rhetoric comes at a time when the region is clearly breaking free of Washington's grasp. Across Latin America, leftist leaders have been elected on anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal platforms. On April 26, left-leaning Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was re-elected with 51.7 percent of the votes, showing that the leader is one of the most popular in Ecuador's recent history; it was the first election since 1979 that did not necessitate a run-off vote.

Statistics also show that many Latin American leaders' socialistic policies -- and independence from Washington -- are improving the lives of their citizens.

Inés Bustillo, director of the Washington office of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a United Nations agency, recently told the Christian Science Monitor that in Latin America, "Between 2003 and 2008, we had average annual growth of 4.5 percent -- growth we had not seen since the late 1960s … That growth, and some really sound fiscal policies and expanded social initiatives, led to a 9 percent drop in the poverty rate -- 40 million people moving above the poverty line."

Obama Has a Fan in Colombia

Obama has previously criticized the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, citing the assassination of labor leaders and violations of human rights as reasons for not supporting the deal. Yet Obama has since made an about-face on the topic. The day after the summit, the Obama administration announced that it will not renegotiate any part of the North American Free Trade Agreement and will continue pushing for the application of FTAs with Panama and Colombia.

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