Barack Obama has defended his brand of world politics, saying he “strengthens our hand” by reaching out to enemies of the US and making sure the nation is a leader, not a lecturer, of democracy.
The president’s foreign doctrine emerged across his four-day trip to Latin America for the Summit of the Americas, his first extended venture to a region of the world where resentment of US power still lingers.
He got a smile, handshakes and even a gift from incendiary left-wing leader Hugo Chavez of Venezuela at the summit in Trinidad, and embraced overtures of new relations from isolated Cuban president Raul Castro.
“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,” Mr Obama said, recalling his race for the White House.
“The American people didn’t buy it. And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it – because it doesn’t make sense.”
Nevertheless, Mr Obama made sure to inject some caution and clear expectations for US foes as he capped his trip to twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago with a steamy outdoor news conference.
On Cuba, he said Castro should release political prisoners, embrace democratic freedoms and cut fees on the money that Cuban-Americans send back to their families.
Mr Obama has lifted some restrictions on Cuba and Castro responded with a broad, conciliatory overture.
“The fact that you had Raul Castro say he’s willing to have his government discuss with ours not just issues of lifting the embargo, but issues of human rights, political prisoners, that’s a sign of progress,” Mr Obama said.
“And so we’re going to explore and see if we can make some further steps.”
He did not, though, offer any sign of lifting the crushing US trade embargo on Cuba, as many Latin American and US leaders wanted. Mr Obama acknowledged that the US policy in Cuba for the last 50 years “hasn’t worked” but said change would be gradual.
In Washington, both Democrats and Republicans said last night that they wanted to see action, not just rhetoric, from Cuba.
Mr Obama’s friendly encounters with Mr Chavez at the summit drew intense publicity – partly, Mr Obama said, because Mr Chavez is good at getting in front of TV cameras.
Mr Chavez’s anti-American rhetoric has, in the past, led Mr Obama to call him a demagogue.
But even before he got back to Washington last night, Mr Obama was facing condemnation from some Republicans about how he dealt with Mr Chavez.
“I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez,” said Senator John Ensign.
Mr Obama brushed that aside, noting that Venezuela has a defence budget about a 600th the size of America’s and owns the oil company 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 US,” he said.
Venezuela and the US expelled each other’s ambassadors last September. But during the summit, Mr Chavez approached US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and said he was restoring his nation’s ambassador in Washington, voicing hopes for a new era in relations.
“We ratify our willingness to begin what has started: cementing new relations,” Mr Chavez said yesterday in remarks broadcast on state television. “We have the very strong willingness to work together.”
Mr Obama’s dealings with Mr Chavez spoke to his broader message: dismissing arguments of the past, and respecting other democratic governments even if he opposes their economic and foreign policy.
“If we are practising what we preach, and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand,” Mr Obama said. “That allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.”
He said of his doctrine for engagement: “We’re not simply going to lecture you, but we’re rather going to show through how we operate the benefits of these values and ideals.”
Central American leaders who met Mr Obama said they pressed him on immigration reform. They also said Mr Obama promised to consider providing better notice before the US deported dangerous criminals to their nations.