PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — There were smiles and a handshake last night, yet today Hugo Chavez gave President Obama a book that sharply criticizes the United States' involvement in Latin America.
At the beginning of Obama's meeting with leaders of South American countries this morning, Chavez walked over to Obama, who rose to his feet to greet him, and the Venezuelan president handed the new U.S. president a copy of "Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina" by Eduardo Galeano, a journalist from Uruguay.
The full book title in English is "The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent." It's a politically influential text among the left in Latin America, first published in 1971, that lambastes the colonization of the region by countries like the United States. Obama accepted the book, which Chavez handed him as reporters were being ushered out of the room, and shook hands with the longtime U.S. adversary as photographers clicked away.
Asked later about the gift, Obama said, "I thought it was one of Chavez's books,'' he said. "I was going to give him one of mine.''??He dodged a question about whether his encounters with Chavez have paved the way for a meeting between the two leaders, responding, "I think we're making progress at the summit."
But while President Obama might want to move on, Latin American leaders continue to unload their past grievances about the United States, and particularly its Cuba policy.
In a meeting that ran for over an hour this morning, South American leaders pressed Obama on lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba and vented about American intervention.
“There was some history raised and some isues of past U.S. intervention," a senior administration official told reporters in a briefing. “The president made the point that he’s not here to argue history."
Obama, the official said, pointed out that unlike the 34 countries represented at the Summit of the Americas, the island nation does not have a democratically elected government.
"The president responded that he understands the importance of Cuba for Latin America," the official said, "and that democracy and the rule of law for the people of Cuba ... should be a concern for them.”
The official said Hugo Chavez spoke for a couple of minutes. Asked about the reaction to Chavez's book gift, the official said, "my personal view is it’s a way for Chavez to get press questions and his picture taken again."
“This is the nature of the person," the official added. "Anyone who's been at a conference with Hugo Chavez knows that if there’s a camera around he’s going to try to get in it.”