This editorial appeared in The Miami Herald.
If a president's job performance could be judged solely by public diplomacy, it would be easy to forecast success for President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas. The president turned in a stellar performance on his recent visit to Europe and Turkey. There's no reason to think he won't do the same on his first foray into Latin America and the Caribbean.
The meeting of 34 chief executives from throughout the region begins Friday in Trinidad & Tobago. Even though Mr. Obama has never been south of the border and is new on the job, he may be the most popular U.S. chief executive in the region since John F. Kennedy. He will be the star of the show. Unfortunately, that raises expectations unlikely to be met, given the economic crisis at home and a foreign-policy agenda that includes two nasty wars, expanding nuclear arsenals by rogue nations and piracy on the high seas. Indeed, it may be asked why Mr. Obama should bother to do anything at the Summit except drop by, shake hands and wave to the crowds before hurrying back home to tend to real business. The answer is that neglect of our closest neighbors, be it benign or expedient, carries too many risks.
The region has been relatively peaceful and free of much of the turmoil that roils other parts of the world. Free markets and democratic forms of government prevail in most countries, making them natural allies of the United States on a range of issues and in most international forums. But the rise of populism led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his recruitment of allies in Bolivia, Nicaragua and elsewhere presents a challenge that this country ignores at its own peril.
The best way to meet it is for Mr. Obama to adopt policies that are well within his reach and would be welcome by the democratic nations of the region.
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