The Miami Herald
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Obama has brushed up on Latin America

BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER

Likely Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, who has never visited Latin America, has done his homework.

When I last interviewed him about U.S.-Latin American relations 10 months ago, Obama had trouble naming any head of state south of the U.S. border, and looked like a deer in the headlights when asked about the region's headlines of the day.

But when I interviewed him again Friday in Miami, shortly before his first major speech on Latin American issues, he spoke confidently about regional affairs. He even mentioned two presidents -- by name.

'A NEW ALLIANCE'

He knows he has to conquer Hispanics -- who have favored Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries -- and has begun paying attention to the hemisphere.

Obama said the Bush administration has been ''negligent'' toward the region, and called for ''a new Alliance of the Americas.'' When I asked him for concrete details of what he would do, he mentioned:

''We should have a special envoy to the Americas that is actively working with leaders of all the countries in the Americas, and has direct access to me,'' he said. The job existed in the Clinton administration, but was discontinued by President Bush.

''We should have an annual summit with leaders of all countries of the Americas, to talk about our common goals and our common interests,'' he said. Currently, the Summit of the Americas is held every three or four years.

He said he would create an Energy Partnership of the Americas to learn from Brazil's ethanol-production experience, and explore opportunities for nuclear power production in talks with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

He said he would substantially raise foreign aid to Latin America. ''It is very important for us to focus not only on trade, but also to focus on aid,'' he said. ``The fact that our total aid to Latin America for the year is the equivalent of one week's spending in Iraq gives you some indication of our priorities.''

He said he will seek ''comprehensive immigration reform,'' involving secure borders, a path to legalization for millions of undocumented workers, and efforts to promote development in Mexico and Central America.

When I asked him what he would do about the estimated 37,000 Interpol-certified Colombian FARC guerrilla computer files that indicate an active support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to the Colombian rebels, Obama went farther than the Bush administration.

''I think the Organization of American States and the international community should launch an immediate investigation into this situation. We have to hold Venezuela accountable if, in fact, it is trying to ferment terrorist activities in other borders,'' he said.

''If Venezuela has violated those rules,'' he said, ``we should mobilize all the countries to sanction Venezuela and let them know that that's not acceptable behavior.''

So far, the 34-country OAS has not acted on the FARC computer files, which refer, among other things, to a $300 million pledge from Chávez to the FARC, which Washington and the European Union categorize as a terrorist group.

THE BOTTOM LINE

My opinion: I found it interesting that Obama, who comes from the Democratic Party's liberal wing, made his first major Latin America policy speech before a traditionally conservative Cuban-American audience in Miami. And I was surprised by his call for an OAS probe into the FARC files.

I was not impressed with his call for creation of a new ''Alliance of the Americas.'' Every recent U.S. president has announced equally ambitious-sounding hemispheric initiatives, which have barely made an impact.

And I wasn't thrilled by his call for an increase in aid, which may be his way of making up for his opposition to U.S. free trade deals with Colombia and Central America. Latin America needs trade and aid.

But I like Obama's proposals to name a special envoy to the Americas and to hold annual summits with regional leaders -- these are steps that would force a president with no history of engagement in the region to pay attention to the hemisphere.

And I like his stand on immigration, especially that he understands that it's not just a U.S. law enforcement issue, but also a regional development issue: as long as Latin America doesn't do better, people will continue to move north.

Above all, it's a relief that Obama has finally done his homework on Latin America. The challenge now will be to keep him engaged.