President Obama Faces a Tough Test in Trinidad

barackIt will take more than his disarming smile (see photo at right) and sympatico approach for President Obama to win over Caribbean and Latin America leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad this weekend. There is a legacy of bitterness in the region that he did not have to deal with in his triumphant tour of Europe. For many years, Latin America has suffered – and in some ways benefited – from involvement with America. And no economy is more dependent on America. Now, America has let the region down.

Strangely, U.S. media virtually ignore the Caribbean and continental Latin America. And apparently the region’s history is not taught in U.S. schools. The U.S. public is made aware only of sensational topics such as drug smuggling and illegal immigration (or occasional intemperate outbursts from characters like Hugo Chavez). My impression is that the American public views the entire region as corrupt, primitive, impoverished and dangerously vulnerable to Communist influence. Also, there’s no denying that some American administrations have pursued policies dictated by corporate abusers such as the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Banana) and neocon ideologues who fostered the infamous “death squads” of the 1980s and funded right-wing insurgency.

Yet these countries have a long history of cooperation with America. I am sure you know of American involvement in Jamaica’s bauxite industry and its hospitality industry and so many other aspects of the island’s development. And you probably know that when you stop at a Citgo station to put gas in your car you are sending the money to Chavez in Venezuela, which is number four on the list of America’s oil suppliers (the top ten are Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Angola, Iraq, Algeria, the United Kingdom and Brazil).

workersAnd most Americans know about tourism – a lot of Americans vacation in the region – which is vitally important to Caribbean and Latin American economies. But I bet few people know about the guest worker program. That doesn’t get much publicity over here. Most Jamaicans know the song “One, two, three, four, Colon man a come.” And some of us will remember that it refers to workers recruited in Jamaica to help build the Panama Canal. Also, throughout the years, guest workers from Jamaica (and other neighboring countries) have come to America, sent money home to feed, house and educate their families, and sometimes returned with capital to buy a piece of land or develop land they already own. Some 6,000 Jamaicans found work through the United States guest worker program last year. (Photo shows Jamaican farm workers waving their travel documents Wednesday in Kingston.)

Furthermore, Latin Americans are historically America’s most loyal customers. When I lived in Miami, for example, I was startled by the annual summer influx of Brazilians who descended on the stores like a swarm of locusts.

But now the region has a bone to pick with its Northern neighbor. America sold its leaders a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and it turned out to be fool’s gold. This vision is known as “the Washington consensus” and it’s based on the free-market fundamentalism that has undermined the American financial system, triggering the global economic crisis. (You’ve probably heard Republicans in Congress touting the failed philosophy even now despite overwhelming evidence that it just doesn’t work.)

With many Caribbean and Latin American economies relying on trade (and other kinds of involvement) with America and some of the region’s poorest countries experiencing a sharp decline in the money relatives in America send to the folks back home, the slumping U.S. economy is having a disastrous ripple effect. Naturally, the region’s leaders blame the United States.

“You have to be willing to accept that Latin Americans, who are experts in crisis after creating many of their own, will say ‘We didn’t create this one’,” said Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States. “We’re going to have some hard things to say (to the U.S. President).”

This time, President Obama will need all of his diplomatic skills to smooth the ruffled feathers he has inherited.