Watching President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas confirmed that this man’s personal story has intertwined with the nation’s complicated and usually tragic racial history in such a way that others can’t tear their eyes away from him. President Obama walks into a room and suddenly everything seems different.
When President Lula of Brazil talks about the economic crisis being the work of white people with blue eyes, Obama can join the rest of the room in looking around to see whom Lula intends by his vile racist claim. But, the issue of Obama’s race is not merely about the atmospherics at these meetings. Incompetent or corrupt leaders have long blamed America for their nation’s ills. The cry against the "Yanqui" is always a way to divert attention from a regime’s own shortcomings. That is harder to do with Obama sitting next to you. If any group of people has a legitimate gripe against the government of the United States, it is African-Americans. But, Obama did not join the ranks of the complainers nor did he build his career on racist resentment. He is not Al Sharpton. Instead, he learned the rules, discovered he could play the game better than anyone else on the court, and won the White House prize.
None of this is meant to excuse the neglect or stupidity with which American foreign policy towards Latin America has been conducted by presidents of both parties. The other day, I heard an NPR story that played audiotape of President and Jackie Kennedy visiting Mexico City in 1962. Mrs. Kennedy spoke in Spanish. Both Kennedys called Mexico a democracy. It is accurate to say that Mexico was not in the communist camp in 1962 but it was hardly a democracy. The Revolutionary Party continued its one-party rule of the country, human rights were widely violated and the martyrs of Tlateloco were still in high school. Other incidents abound from the Marines landing at Guanica, Puerto Rico in 1898 to the 1989 invasion of Panama. American foreign policy within our own hemisphere has usually been characterized by hubris and myopia.
It remains to be seen if the early differences between Obama and his predecessors that were so evident this past weekend in Trinidad will mature into substantive differences in hemispheric relations. It was a good sign that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month acknowledged that the root of Mexico’s problems with drug cartels is the insatiable appetite of Americans to get high. And, with everyone crowding around Obama, Hugo Chavez was marginalized, which is always a good thing, although the collapsing price of oil was fast removing much of his swagger in any event. But, improved relations will take more changes than this, starting with reform of our own immigration laws.
So, Obama gets high marks for his first visit south of the border. But, it is only a first visit. If we are to truly enflesh John Paul’s vision that saw the hemisphere as one America, we have a long way to go. At least, however, we appear to be moving in the right direction for the first time in a long time.