You probably didn’t notice, but President Obama recently took a working vacation to Latin America instead of hanging out in Hawaii, his preferred holiday destination.
The president rarely does much R&R at his Chicago home or the presidential retreat, Camp David, preferring other more alluring locations that he can tie in with business.
He took his whole family, including his mother-in-law and the usual White House entourage, to three countries – Brazil, Chile and El Salvador – which, for most, including the president, was a first-time event.
After a short stop in Brasilia to meet with President Dilma Rousseff, they hopped to Río, where President Obama made a short talk, saw one of Río’s famed shanty towns, kicked a soccer ball around with some favela kids and visited Christ’s statue on Corcovado Mountain.
In between, he did the protocol rounds that justified the status of an official visit.
In diplomatic speak, it’s known as showing the flag when there isn’t any strong motive or urgency for the visit. He did sign with his counter-parts some innocuous agreements –always part of the show – but the president got lectured on geopolitics, mostly by President Rousseff.
There aren’t currently any pressing issues in Latin America, and none of the president’s handlers could offer a convincing reason for the president’s visit to the region at this time, responding to the carping by calling it a “goodwill tour,” which was really a nonevent coupled with lousy timing.
Some of his media friends, like the Washington Post, dared to call it a junket.
“When it came to issues of particular concern to Brazilians or other Latin Americans, the president had little to offer,” editorialized the Washington Post. “Instead, he delivered warmed-over restatements on his broad positions on immigration and trade without mentioning any meaningful new measures.”
The president was airborne just about the time U.S. jets were strafing Muammar Gaddafi’s Syria. That may have justified turning Air Force One around and heading back to Washington, but his aides reminded us Air Force One is a flying White House.
I suppose you could blame his handlers for convincing him to visit Latin America at such an inopportune time when even some of the politically correct Latinos seemed puzzled and showed some awkwardness with the Obama visit.
Keeping Latinos at bay is part of the job, which has never really been a problem except for some occasional pesky despot, nefarious activities like the drug trade, or the more benevolent issues like illegal immigration.
The U.S. can’t afford to ignore the Latino hemisphere community, which at times might snort and snarl at that colossal to the north –but it’s the Latino way to set aside issues for the moment when a U.S. president comes visiting.
Notwithstanding the anti-U.S. belligerence of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, all of whom would probably abdicate their posts rather than entertain a U.S. president – hosting the big enchilada of the free world is still the ultimate political event for Latinos.
Latinos have always been known to simmer under a big brother complex in its relations with the U.S., which is rapidly changing under a new cadre of well-schooled but sometimes defiant Latino democratic leaders and the region’s evolving social and political ascendancy.
Another factor is the changing demographics that presage a Latino Diaspora transforming the U.S. in some areas into a look-alike, do-alike Latino environment.
Obama praised Brazil and its president, Rousseff. Brazil recently became the eighth-largest economy in the world and the seventh-largest in purchasing power, overtaking Spain and Brazil, and Ms. Rousseff lectured Obama on some slights. Ms. Rousseff said Brazil wants parity among the world’s leaders and a relationship of equals. You could almost hear Obama saying to be patient, echoing that old saw that Brazil is the country of the future, etc.
President Rousseff said Brazil had earned and deserves a permanent United Nations Security Council Seat and wants Obama to endorse it as he recently did for India.
The best Obama could do was have his staff issue a statement that “President Obama expressed appreciation for Brazil’s aspiration to become a permanent member of the Security Council.”
The feisty Brazilian lady president added, “In the past, our relations were often characterized by empty rhetoric that papered over what was really at stake between us.
“I am equally concerned with the slow pace of the reforms in the multilateral institutions that still reflect an old world,” she said.
It didn’t get much better in Chile for President Obama, but maybe a little sillier.
The president was greeted by protesters still seething over the U.S. support of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of Salvador Allende and seeking apologies.
Other than that, Chile’s recently elected president, Sebastián Piñera, seemed hard pressed to bring up any issues to chide President Obama, so he took the charm route.
“The first lady is a very pretty lady,” Piñera said in his remarks. “So is your wife,” Obama replied.
Piñera added they had a lot in common, like both studying at Harvard, both are left-handed, and both are “sportsmen.”
Then on to El Salvador, which still has observers searching for motive, other than the fact that this little Central American country is a poster child of illegal immigration to the United States that sprouts violent youth gangs, so what better setting for Obama’s discourse on immigrant issues.
The president had little to offer, except that he was committed to comprehensive immigrant reform, and cut his trip short, saying he had a growing crisis on his hands – Gaddafi – and needed to return home.
The president and his family passed on their tour to the Mayan ruins.