Obama Hopes To Ease Tensions With Latin America, Caribbean

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President Obama is headed to Mexico to address border security, drugs and trade issues. And tomorrow, he lands in Trinidad and Tobago for the fifth Summit of the Americas, where 30 leaders from the Western Hemisphere will gather to discuss regional issues and solutions to ongoing problems. Moisés Naím, of Foreign Policy Magazine, discusses U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's our Thursday International Briefing, and we're going to talk about the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi. She's been charged with espionage in Iran. We're going to speak with two journalists who were once in the same situation to hear about what is likely happening to Saberi and why.

But first, we go to Mexico, where President Obama is headed today to talk about some tricky issues, border security, drugs and trade. Tomorrow, he heads to Trinidad and Tobago for the fifth Summit of the Americas, a meeting in which over 30 leaders from the Western Hemisphere come together to talk about pressing regional concerns.

Joining us to talk about what we can expect from the Mexico trip and the summit is Moises Naim. He is editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy Magazine. He joins us by phone from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where he's covering a meeting of the World Economic Forum. Welcome, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. MOISES NAIM (Editor-in-chief, Foreign Policy Magazine): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So Moises, so far, the Obama administration has already sent three members of the Cabinet to Mexico, all of whom have addressed escalating drug-related violence in the country. Felipe Calderon has only met with President Obama in the U.S. What can the presidents realistically add to the conversation today with this - with their meeting today?

Mr. NAIM: It's just to confirm that Mexico has acquired an importance that it did not have for many years, even since NAFTA, since the free trade agreement the U.S. signed in the '90s. And as you said, security, crime, drugs, and also trade, are an important part of the conversation. And - but again, Mexico has acquired a priority and a level of - high level attention on the part of the Obama administration that we had not seen in a long time.

MARTIN: And why is that?

Mr. NAIM: Well, as you said, the crime is getting out of control, spilling over into the United States. This is one of the most complicated borders in the world. The one between the United Sates and Mexico is one of the only borders in the world between a highly developed country and a very poor country. And there are all sorts of issues, from immigration, to trade, to drugs, crime, and the like. And so, it's a complicated issue that is now getting the attention because the crime and the violence has gotten out of control.

MARTIN: And you also mentioned trade, that the trade relations between the two countries have actually gotten kind of testy. In fact, Mexico has slapped tariffs on some 90 American products back in March. You, yourself, are a former industrial and trade minister. How likely is it that the countries can unravel this conflict that's been kind of years in the making?

Mr. NAIM: Well, when countries trade, countries have disagreements. It's - and Mexico and the United States trade at a billion dollars a day of trade between the two countries, $367 billion per year. So, it's bound to have frictions and disagreements and so on. The most recent one has to do with trucks and trucking. As part of the free trade agreement, the two countries, Mexican trucks were going to be allowed into the United States. But they were deemed not safe, they were deemed safety hazards, and so there was a very important program to build the testing and security and safety of these trucks. That program was discontinued. And in effect, this has more to do with pressures from the teamsters and others that are trying to stop Mexican trucks from coming and then keep the business for American companies. It's protectionism in its more pure, simple way.

And so, the Obama administration - and also, that also was happening before - stopped the initiative, and that created a friction. And then, the Mexicans retaliated by putting some tariffs in American products and took the United States to the World Trade Organization's conflict resolution mechanism.

MARTIN: Well, these are very strong feelings on both sides of the border about this as, of course, you know. I mean, as you pointed out, on the Mexican side, people consider this protectionist on the American side. First of all, there doesn't seem to be a lot of mood for negotiation on these issues, given the state of the economy here and also the safety issues that many people think about. Do you think that it's likely that the leaders can work this out, given the current climate?

Mr. NAIM: Yes, absolutely, I think so. And very often, with trade what happens is you get the big headlines. But you, you know, there are (unintelligible) on the current of very powerful economic forces at work in favor of this. The, you know, as I said, there is a billion dollars of trade between the two countries to the great benefit of the United States, in many ways. And so, there are millions of American families that have, you know, their livelihood is contingent and dependent on exports to Mexico and vice versa.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And I'm speaking with Moises Naim. He's editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy Magazine. And we're talking about President Obama's trip to Mexico, and then his later move to Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas.

Well, let's talk about the Trinidad and Tobago portion of the trip. So, how would you compare this, the reception he's likely to receive in Trinidad and Tobago, with that he - that he got in Europe? It's hard to see how he could be even more warmly received.

Mr. NAIM: Very likely. And remember, he's meeting in the Caribbean, in Trinidad and Tobago, where he's going to be received even more enthusiastically by the people and the crowds than Europe. You can imagine if the cold Europeans were so enthusiastic about him you can imagine what happens in the warm Calypso Caribbean. It's going to be very, very - a very good mood. That mood, however, will not be reflected inside the building of the meetings, where the heads of states are going to be far more explicit about their unhappiness on the economic crisis.

They will blame the United States, as did the Europeans. But they will be less prepared than Europeans to just say, you know, okay, let's move on, this is where we are, we are where we are and then we have to look forward. There's going to be a lot of grandstanding denouncing the United States as the source of this financial crisis. At the same time, there will be a lot of presidents that are going to try to meet with President Obama and try to get a personal relationship with him. But he has decided that he was - will not have meetings, one-on-one meetings with any of the presidents but he will have just group meetings.

MARTIN: He will not. Why not?

Mr. NAIM: Because there are too many of them. There are - and it's gonna be very complicated, and sequencing, and so on, the meetings. This is going to be a quick trip, and you can just say that it has speed dating and group hug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Speed dating and a group hug. How is he likely to be received by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez? Who's been - as I think most Americans know - extremely critical of Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.

Mr. NAIM: Exactly.

MARTIN: …and spared no quarter in his - and didn't have any hesitation sharing his thoughts about him in rather blunt fashion. How is that going to go?

Mr. NAIM: Well, and he has also started insulting President Obama in a variety of ways. One day, he insults President Obama quite publicly on television. The next day, he says that he wants to develop a constructive relationship. But the story is not only one of being quite strident in his criticism of American presidents, it's also one in which he steals the show in whatever meeting he attends. He has attention for creating media events around him.

And this one is going to be a tough one for him because he cannot afford to come this meeting and be completely overshadowed by President Obama. And so he has to come up with some sort of stunt, some sort of statement, some sort of event or gesture that will make sure that the media spotlight is also a little bit on him and not only and exclusively on President Obama.

MARTIN: Why do you say that? Why do you say that he can't afford to be overshadowed by President Obama? Did you feel that he sort of, his status as a regional leader, he feels threatened by the popularity of this new president?

Mr. NAIM: Absolutely. And he, you know, he's not a regional leader. He's a leader in a group of countries that are part of his sphere and that are closely dependent on his oil or, you know, he has a lot of oil revenues. Even if oil prices have come down, he continues to have quite a significant amount, you know, his checkbook to help other countries that are his friends is quite significant.

But the - he needs for internal consumption, he needs for the crowds that he -you know, he is very popular in many countries also. So he needs to keep his image of the one that bashes the empire, as he normally calls this, you know…

MARTIN: There is some feeling - I don't know whether you agree with it - that the criticism that the Europeans would otherwise have had of President Obama purely because of the U.S. role in the global recession, you know, whether you agree with that analysis or not, but was attenuated somewhat because they saw how their own constituents responded to him. And it was a feeling that it provided a bit of a check. Do you think that the same dynamic works here?

Mr. NAIM: Yes. We will see. I do - again, it's very interesting to note, Michel, that Latin America is more divided internally. Countries that are going to be meeting with President Obama are divided. And - than - it used to be that Latin America had a very fractious, contentious relationship with the United States. And they were unifying things that brought the Latin Americans together in having their reaction against the United States.

This time around, the divisions and the frictions inside Latin America are more profound than the divisions that some large important countries have with the United States. Mexico and Brazil and Colombia and Peru and Chile and Costa Rica and so on have very good relationships with the United States and not very good relationship with the countries around what's generically I call the axis of Hugo. You know, the countries that are around Hugo Chavez and they are very adversarial against the United States, do not have a very good relationship with these other countries.

MARTIN: And finally, we only have about a minute left. Of course, Cuba, speaking of a polarizing issue. This week, the Obama administration made headlines with its decision to loosen the restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling and sending remittances to the island. The embargo was left untouched. Of course, Cuba is not invited to the summit in Trinidad, but do you think that this issue will be discussed?

Mr. NAIM: Yes, I think it's going to be brought up. President Obama and his administration preempted a larger focus on that issue and - by relaxing some of the terms of the embargo. But it will certainly be brought up and certainly is going to be part of the conversation.

MARTIN: Moises Naim is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Rio de Janeiro, where he's covering the World Economic Forum. Tough assignment, huh?

Mr. NAIM: Very hard.

MARTIN: Okay. Thank you so much for talking to us. Keep in touch.

Mr. NAIM: Thank you, Michel.

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