Commentary: Obama already getting best of anti-American leaders

President Barack Obama has already scored his first major victory against anti-American demagogues worldwide. He has put them on the defensive by the sheer power of his popularity in their own countries.

Even before he sat down at the Oval Office for his first work day on Wednesday, Obama's significant popularity in Latin America and other parts of the world has given him a head start over what he described in his inaugural address as "those leaders around the world who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West."

In many countries, Obama has a more positive image than that of the local head of state.

That has put many anti-American leaders – Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chavez among them – in the awkward position of having to tone down their daily tirade of epithets against the United States or risk being out of touch with their own people.

While we will have to wait a few days to see the first polls showing Obama's post-inauguration popularity abroad, there are indications that it's huge. Consider:

A BBC World Service poll of 17,356 people in 17 nations released on Obama's inauguration day shows that 67 percent expressed optimism that Obama's presidency will lead to better relations with the rest of the world.

This amounts to a 21 percentage-point increase over the number of people who expressed that same optimism when a similar poll was conducted six months ago. "Familiarity with Obama seems to be breeding hope," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which conducted the poll.

In Mexico, 76 percent of those polled by the daily Excelsior earlier this month believe things will go better with Obama. The telephone survey conducted by the BGC polling firm showed that 78 percent of those interviewed consider Obama a "trustful" person, 75 percent describe him as "somebody who is close to the people," 74 percent as ''admirable'' and 86 percent as "intelligent."

While there are no recent polls on Obama's popularity in Venezuela, pollsters there say it's likely to be higher than that of Chavez.

Oscar Shemel, head of the Hinterlaces polling firm, told me in a telephone interview from Caracas that judging from previous polls on what Venezuelans would consider the ideal leader, "Obama fits the mold perfectly."

He said that "people here are yearning for somebody who is conciliatory, who comes from the bottom and who extends his hand to everybody." He added, "Chavez has a 47 percent positive image. I wouldn't be surprised if Obama scores the same, or higher."

So it shouldn't come as a big surprise to anybody that Chavez, despite being criticized by Obama in an interview earlier this week, showed uncharacteristic restraint in his comments about the new U.S. president.

While cautioning that "nobody can have high expectations because we are dealing with the North American empire," Chavez expressed his hope that Obama's arrival "will mark a real change in U.S. relations with Third World countries."

Bolivia's Chavez-backed President Evo Morales, who recently expelled the U.S. ambassador and blames Washington for almost everything you can imagine, said: "For the first time in the United States, a black brother has democratically won an election. I feel that the whole world will change."

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a Chavez ally who was on an official visit to Cuba on the day of Obama's inauguration, spoke positively about Obama's inaugural speech, which she said confirmed the "good expectations" about the new U.S. president.

"Cristina Kirchner may be thinking, with good reason, that a picture with [former President George W.] Bush would have caused her to lose votes at home, but it has now become evident that one with Obama would get her additional votes," political analyst Rosendo Fraga wrote in Argentina's daily La Nacion.

My opinion: Obama won the first round in his looming battle with authoritarian rulers in Latin America and around the world.

And I would bet that – as the polls in coming weeks begin to reflect the impact of his magnificent inaugural speech's warning to autocrats that "your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy" – his star abroad will rise even higher.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.