Commentary: Obama's popularity makes Chavez's life tougher

Poor Hugo Chavez! Watching President Barack Obama's first measures after taking office, Venezuela's radical leftist leader and his disciples in Latin America must be thinking, "It was easier against Bush."

In his first days in office last week, Obama ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba within one year, signed a decree prohibiting torture of U.S. prisoners, opened up White House records and reiterated in various forms his inaugural speech's message to anti-American demagogues that "your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."

By reversing some of the most visible Bush policies that fueled anti-Americanism abroad, Obama has started to pull the rug from under Chavez and other radical populists who have built their political careers blaming the United States for their countries' backwardness.

As we said in a previous column, Obama has put them on the defensive. They are suddenly finding it hard to lash out against a U.S. president who often has higher approval ratings in their own countries than they do.

Even Fidel Castro – the ultimate master of the art of using the United States as a scapegoat for his country's failures – is treating Obama with kid gloves. In a written column, Castro said that he does not "harbor the slightest doubt" about Obama's "honesty," although "a lot of questions remain unanswered."

Now, if Obama wants to renew U.S. leadership in the Americas, as he pledged during the campaign, he should make the following additional moves – some of which are already being considered by his staff – ahead of the 34-country Summit of the Americas to take place in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17:

Before he arrives at the G-20 international summit in London on April 2, Obama should make a formal proposal to expand the "Group of 8" – the world's richest nations – to include Brazil and Mexico. The Group of 8, which meets regularly to seek solutions to the world's most serious problems, consists of the United States, Japan, Russia, Canada, Italy, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

Announce the appointment of a White House special envoy to the Americas who reports directly to the Oval Office. The job was held during Bill Clinton's administration by former Clinton chief of staff and kindergarten classmate Mack McLarty, but the position was discontinued by Bush.

As part of his domestic plan to reduce healthcare costs and provide universal healthcare, Obama should take steps to allow Americans to use their health insurance in U.S.-certified hospitals abroad. This would offer more affordable healthcare options to Americans, would help reduce the U.S. budget deficit and would be a huge boon to Latin America's health and tourism industries.

Follow up on his campaign pledges to reduce U.S. foreign oil dependency and create an "Energy Alliance of the Americas" by providing funding and technical assistance for alternative fuel export industries in Latin America. This would be a win-win situation for everybody (except the oil-rich Chavez, of course).

Ask Congress to pass free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. Obama opposed the Colombian deal during the campaign, but he could now sign some side agreements on labor or human rights issues and throw his support behind the agreements.

"The hemisphere is looking for a change in tone, but is also looking for specific actions," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the New York-based Americas Society, who co-authored a new report on Building the Hemispheric Growth Agenda that includes some of these ideas. "Obama should use the opportunity provided by the Summit of the Americas to build a positive atmosphere early on."

My opinion: I agree. If he does it, Obama will further disarm Chavez, Castro and other narcissist-Leninist captains of the microphone.

Obama could take a page from what the U.S. charge d'affairs in Bolivia, Krishna Urs, said last week after Chavez-backed President Evo Morales claimed – without evidence – that Washington is plotting against him. Urs, who was in the audience, left the room and later demanded that the Bolivian government stop "using the United States as a chip in its domestic political agenda."

Obama will be able to demand that foreign leaders be judged by what they build – and not by what they blame Washington for – if he continues being seen abroad as a well-intentioned, credible leader.

Judging from his first days in office, he has started out very well.


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.