Obama’s trip to South America gets bumpy before take-off

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Obama’s long-planned trip to South America’s sunny vistas was carefully routed around the political storms in Columbia and Venezuela, but his smooth flights to Rio de Janeiro and charming Santiago are already being disrupted by the media turbulence emerging from Japan, Libya and the faltering U.S. economy.

The White House held a surprise 2.30 p.m. press conference to address developments in Libya, where France and Britain are preparing to launch airstrikes on advancing Libya government forces. On Thursday, the president held an sudden press conference to address growing worries about nuclear contamination from Japan’s stricken nuclear-power station.

The accumulating bad news on unemployment – Gallup raised its estimate today to 10.2 percent – is also prompting the administration to step up its emphasis on the trip’s potential boost to trade with South America. He’s holding three morning interviews with TV stations that broadcast into North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, all of which are critical to his 2012 reelection plans.

However, planners for the five-day trip choose to avoid the long-standing crises in Colombia, where a completed free-trade treaty has been stalled by union opposition. The president is also steering clear of Venezuela, where the fascist dictator continues to cripple regional trade with the U.S. by nationalizing large sections of the nation’s economy, and also by threatening long-standing U.S. allies, especially Colombia.

The trip is instead focused on Brazil and Chile, said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. The president will “speak to the whole region and to lay out what we’re doing in a number of key areas, such as energy cooperation, citizen security, economic growth and development, and democracy and human rights,” Rhodes said at a March 16 press conference.

This broader pitch “shifts the dynamic in the region whereby we’re not stuck in the same debate about something that happened decades ago or kind of Cold War mentalities around the nature of U.S. leadership,” said Rhodes. “It’s instead a forward-looking relationship between the United States and the region,” he said.

Back in the United States, however, the pending free-trade agreement with Colombia, and nearby Panama, are stalled in the face of opposition from U.S. unions that are a vital part of the President’s reelection campaign

“Obviously, as the President made very clear in the State of the Union, these are important agreements,” Daniel Restrepo, the White House’s director for Western Hemisphere Affairs told the press March 16. “We are committed to working on outstanding issues with the governments of Panama and Colombia, and hope to do so in a successful fashion that stays true to our interests and values… [and] we’re committed to working on these outstanding issues with our partners to ensure that basic labor rights are protected and the interests of American workers are, as well,” he said.

The final stop on the trip will take the president to El Salvador, the birthplace of roughly 1.5 million Salvadorans now living in the United States. He returns to Washington on Wednesday, March 23. Many of the former Salvadorans can vote, and will be an important piece of the Democratic base during the 2012 election. “We believe that Central America, of course, is a very important sub-region of the Americas and one that the United States has a longstanding relationship with, as well as substantial — obviously Central American immigrant populations as well,” said Rhodes.

The stop is El Salvador will also provide an opportunity for the President to tour Mayan ruins and visit the grave of Father Oscar Romero, now buried in San Salvador’s National Cathedral. He is also expected to stand at Brazil’s famous “Christ the Redeemer” statue, with its stunning vista of Rio de Janeiro.

The statue-visit will be followed by “a speech really directed at the Brazilian people.. [with which] we also have a set of deeply shared values with the Brazilians,” said Rhodes. “They are a democracy; they are a diverse country; they are a country that has pursued social inclusion — so many of the values that we hold dear as Americans are shared by Brazilians, and so the President will be able to speak to that,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is, if you look at any metric in the region, President Obama is a hugely popular leader,” he said.

However, amid declining confidence and poll numbers at home, trip planners have also provided the media with several opportunities to showcase the president hard at work with political and business leaders in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. In Chile, he is expected to deliver a speech on U.S.-South American relations, and his potential cooperation on renewable energy projects, trade, human rights and “citizen security,” said Rhodes. “Citizen security” is a term used by the White House to address issues such as crime and drugs, employment and migration.

“There is really no region in the world that we’re more deeply engaged in than the Americas in many respects,” said Rhodes, “given the overlap of populations [and] given the depth of the economic relationship.”