PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called the last U.S. president “the devil.” But this U.S. president wanted to meet him.
So Barack Obama walked across a hotel ballroom here Friday and introduced himself to Chavez. The two leaders smiled and shook hands, chatting briefly.
Chavez’s office later said the two men talked about their mutual desire to change the relationship between their countries – a characterization the White House didn’t dispute.
Asked what he said to Chavez, Obama replied: “I said, ‘Como estas?’”
Handshakes and smiles aside, Obama heads into Saturday’s Summit of the Americas across the table from Chavez and a handful of other Latin American leaders who are longtime antagonists of the United States.
Obama got an early taste Friday of how some in this region view the United States, as a nearby neighbor but hardly a friend. He can expect even more criticism Saturday, particularly on Cuba and the U.S. economic meltdown and more.
Obama tried a little handshake diplomacy with other U.S. rivals – including Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, with Obama saying it was “gusto,” a pleasure, to meet Ortega.
But in a sign of just how tough this crowd might be for Obama, Ortega promptly walked out of the ballroom and tore into the United States over Cuba and the G-20 nations for dragging down the world’s economy.
“It is not fair. It is not ethical. It is not equitable," Ortega said of the way the G-20s actions have impacted Central American countries. And he called for "a G-192" of all members of the United Nations “to find a new solution to the crisis.”
Scores of people lined the streets awaiting Obama’s arrival at the Hyatt hotel where the summit is being held.
But inside the hotel, a group of leaders led by Chavez will strongly press Obama on lifting the U.S. embargo and allowing Cuba back into the group of nations that organizes the summit. And now they’re armed with Cuban leader Raul Castro’s remarks that he is willing to talk with the United States about “everything, whenever.”
Cuba is not represented at the summit because after the embargo it was kicked out of the group of 34 democratic countries that make up the Organization of American States. While most of Latin America, including Mexico, supports the U.S. lifting the embargo on Cuba, none will pressure Obama on the issue as much as Chavez and his entourage.
Chavez, a close friend of Fidel and Raul Castro, is perhaps best known as the Latin American leader who called George W. Bush a “devil” during a meeting at the United Nations. But the Venezuelan president has also used the Summit of the Americas to make a splash.
During the last one in 2005, Chavez convened 25,000 people at a soccer stadium in Argentina to blast Bush’s stance on free trade. And he met with the Castro brothers in Cuba last Friday to discuss the upcoming summit.
Backing Chavez is:
-- Manuel Zelaya, the president of Honduras, who last year called on Washington to legalize drugs because he said it would stop drug-related killings in Honduras.
-- Morales, the Bolivian president who went on a hunger strike in the presidential palace last week until his Congress passed an elections law believed to help him. The fast caused Bolivia’s protestor-in-chief to miss the pre-summit gathering earlier this week of U.S. adversaries hosted by Chavez.
But he was able to announce that he would join Chavez in vetoing the key document about the problems facing the hemisphere that comes out of every summit.
-- Ortega of Nicaragua, who also said he would veto the document. Before Ortega took office, the United States warned that his election could cause the country to lose U.S. aid. Fidel Castro was one of the first to congratulate him.
Ortega has a long history with the United States – as the one-time head of the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua that the United States opposed.
Most of these leaders are members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a group of a heads of state known by its Spanish initials, ALBA. It includes Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras and Nicaragua, and was formed in 2004 by Chavez.
Chavez has said ALBA members will speak with "one voice" at the Port of Spain Summit.
But even Latin American leaders who are not overtly adversarial towards the United States are feeling more inspired than ever to flex their muscles in front of the president of the United States.
Latin American countries, such as Brazil, are miffed that the U.S. economic downturn is dragging down their newfound prosperity.
Obama has gone out of his way to reach out to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, a global economic force set to enjoy its first extended period of growth. Obama met with Lula in Washington and even reached out to him on the phone on Thursday before the meeting.
The sour relationship between the United States and countries like Venezeuala and Bolivia is showing immediate consequences. Morales and Chavez, for example, have recently expelled American ambassadors after accusing them of plotting to take down their governments.
And despite their contentious stance toward the United States, leaders like Chavez and Morales enjoy support in Latin American, where in a region plagued with corruption and incompetent government, their constituents believe they have someone in charge who’s looking out for them.
The summit will test Obama’s ability, proven time and again in his rise to the presidency, to adapt to various situations. His disarming style could prove well-suited for the potential confrontations that lie ahead over the next two days.
Aides have said he’ll be on a listening tour while he’s here.
“The President has made very clear,” said Denis McDonough, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, “that he is going to Trinidad and Tobago to engage in a conversation with folks to pragmatically deal with the issues that are facing the people of the Americas today, to kind of leave behind the ideological arguments of the past.”