President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia comes back to Washington today—his 13th time here since being elected in 2002—to meet with President Obama following their face-to-face meeting at the April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s an opportunity to set an agenda looking ahead across the broad range of issues confronting both nations. The pending trade agreement will be discussed, but with Uribe already planning a return trip to Washington in September specifically to lobby, the agenda for the meeting today will be broader, including, no doubt, a joint statement on Honduras.
That’s important, because Colombia has been willfully misrepresented by trade opponents and their allies in Washington as a human rights wasteland. On top of that, for the past several years U.S. policy has been characterized as one dimensional and as supporting a president who his opponents claim is a quasi-autocrat with caudillo, or strong-armed, tendencies, and who, for good measure, was too close to an unpopular U.S. president. The meeting today, together with their discussions in April, will show again that the Colombian president is a serious, thoughtful leader. It will also emphasize that the bilateral agenda with Colombia goes well beyond passage of one agreement, as important as that is, and that the U.S.-Colombia relationship is strong and enduring.
The visit follows hard on the heels of Chile President Michelle Bachelet’s visit to Washington on June 23. This was her second trip here and the first during the Obama presidency, although Vice President Biden was in Santiago just prior to the Summit. Seen as an important ally and as a responsible leader of the Left, somebody with whom the United States can “do business” (paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher’s characterization of Mikhail Gorbachev), Bachelet’s visit was part of the White House’s outreach strategy with regional leaders.
First Mexican President Felipe Calderón visited prior to the inauguration, then Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now Bachelet and Uribe, and visits are likely this autumn from the Presidents of Panama, Uruguay, and others. These meetings have been part of a strategic regional push that has also included travel to Canada and Mexico by both the President and Secretary of State Clinton, an upcoming meeting of North American leaders in August, vice presidential travel to Chile and Costa Rica, the secretary of state’s trip to El Salvador and Honduras for the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly, and of course the Summit of the Americas.
The visits have been productive and useful, allowing the leaders to meet and take each others’ measure. They have also touched each region of the hemisphere in a meaningful way: Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. This approach has begun to lay the groundwork for new partnerships with at least some of the region. In diplomacy, this is an essential prerequisite for advancing the agenda.
The question is becoming, however, what will the President and his administration seek to do with all of this goodwill that he and his senior officials are engendering? That’s the question that’s increasingly being asked by hemispheric observers, both in the United States and abroad.
True, the President has only been in office for five months, and there are a few other things grabbing the attention of official Washington these days, including global financial meltdown, North Korean and Iranian nukes, Afghanistan and Iraq, health care reform, the Supreme Court, and a host of other issues large and small. So let’s not be overly hasty. Even so, one wonders how the administration will address things like a crackdown in press freedoms in Venezuela, as highlighted by Andres Oppenheimer, and the continuing slow-motion march of the Bolivarian revolution.(Attacks on democracy don’t just occur, as over the weekend in Honduras, from the military.) Or the sandbagging at the OAS General Assembly of the U.S. secretary of state on the issue of Cuba by nations who are talking out of both sides of their mouths to the new U.S. administration. This came just weeks after hailing a new day in hemispheric relations at the Summit. And let’s not forget about the need to discuss and develop a hemispheric energy strategy in advance of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December, the pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, and efforts to enhance border cooperation and effectiveness with Mexico including trucking.
These are difficult issues, and require goodwill but also hard choices, not just with hemispheric leaders but also with the U.S. Congress. Meeting together with leaders in Washington, Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere across the hemisphere is an important and necessary beginning. But we are coming quickly to the end of the beginning, and concrete policy proposals and actions are required to keep the momentum and show the hemisphere through deeds as well as words that we really have embarked on a new path in hemispheric affairs.
Coming out of the meeting today, expect to see the usual upbeat statements and positive words. Look beyond that to see if these are matched with specifics, including a timeline for the trade agreement. That will tell us a lot.