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Is President Obama Serious about a New Relationship with the Americas?

President Obama's stance at the Summit of the Americas signals that we may, finally, be stepping into a new era in our relationship with our neighbors.

This is very good news, especially after eight years in which the U.S. president was either ignored as irrelevant or repudiated in much of Latin America. But to be successful, Obama will have to look for advice beyond his secretary of state, whose husband advocated NAFTA and other trade policies now rejected by much of the region.

The Summit of the Americas gave the leaders of Latin America a chance to get to know the new U.S. president. More importantly, it gave Obama a chance to hear, first-hand, the fears and hopes of a continent that has been subjected to repeated U.S. interventions since the Monroe Doctrine declared our country's right to call the shots throughout the hemisphere.

Partners: for real this time? Obama signaled his hopes for a fresh start when he said in his opening remarks that he wanted to form an "equal partnership" among the nations of the hemisphere:

"There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values."

U.S. leaders have said this before, but Obama made some gestures toward implementing a more pragmatic and respectful relationship. Shortly before the summit, the U.S. eased restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel or transfer money to Cuba.

Obama acknowledged the damage caused to Mexico by the drug wars and pledged to take action to reduce the flow of U.S. weapons and cash across the border and to reduce the U.S. market for illegal drugs.

And he announced a micro-credit loan fund to get loans to small business and entrepreneurs. "We're ... committed to combating inequality and creating prosperity from the bottom up," he said.

All these are promising signs that we may be preparing to let go of our dangerous role as the world's sole superpower, at least in Latin America.

What Obama Took Away This was Obama's first trip to Latin America, and it appears he took some important insights home with him. He learned, for example, the same thing I found during a study trip in Latin America at the end of 2006 -- that in many of the poorest regions, Cuban doctors are treating people who ordinarily have little or no access to health care, and that ongoing act of goodwill is generating goodwill in return towards Cuba. Here's what Obama said at his wrap-up news conference:

"One thing that I thought was interesting [was] hearing from these leaders who, when they spoke about Cuba, talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend."

The statement shows Cuba's efforts are having the effect Dr. Juan Ceballos, adviser to the Cuban vice minister of public health, hoped for. I interviewed Ceballos when I was in Havana in December 2006 about why Cuba was carrying out these medical missions and training people from the poorest communities in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa to be doctors.

At first Ceballos emphasized the "big hearts" of the Cuban people, and their pride in helping the world's poor. But when I pressed him on what Cuba hoped to gain for their aid, he said "All we ask for in return is solidarity." What good is "solidarity?"

"It's infinitely better to invest in peace than to invest in war," he told me.

Clearly it's worked. Many of the leaders at the summit raised, repeatedly, the issue of Cuba's exclusion from the summit. Obama got the message. Referencing the role Cuban doctors are playing in the region, he said:

"It's a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence and have -- have a beneficial effect when we need to try to move policies that are of concern to us forward in the region."

The End of Intervention? The U.S. president also, evidently, got an earful about the past U.S. role in the region. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who experienced U.S. engagement first hand when U.S.-backed Contras waged war for years against his government, accused President Obama of being the "president of an empire." And Bolivian President Evo Morales charged that the U.S. Embassy might have been involved in a recent attempt on his life.

Obama acknowledged that the U.S. has a history in the region that has "not always appreciated from the perspective of some," but he added:

"I just want to make absolutely clear that I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments, wherever it happens in the hemisphere. That is not the policy of our government. That is not how the American people expect their government to conduct themselves."

If he means it, this is very good news for a region that has, in the 186 years since the passage of the Monroe Doctrine, seen U.S.-backed military coups, guerrilla warfare, and outright invasions.

New Economic Policy Obama also acknowledged that the neoliberal trade policies, like NAFTA, that have been pressed on the region are deeply unpopular. But he said many related issues were dealt with at the G20 summit.

"We talked about the need to create a reformed international financial -- set of international financial institutions that provide additional flexibility, provide more voice and vote to developing countries."

This may be among the most critical turning points. These economic policies are blamed by many scholars, in Latin America and elsewhere, for the poverty and economic stagnation the region suffered in recent decades. I witnessed the outcome in country after country, where the best lands and resources were turned over to big corporations or their local partners to use for export production, while the locals work for a pittance, or can't work at all for lack of access to land.

And, as we reported in the YES! special issue on Latin America, popular movements throughout the hemisphere oppose these policies, and insist that the land and resources of the people of Latin America be used for their benefit, not to enrich large corporations.

The willingness of the U.S. to impose its will via the military or via harsh economic policies has been at least partly responsible for the popularity of presidents Morales, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Néstor Carlos Kirchner of Argentina, and other leftist leaders. And it's been responsible for the decline in U.S. reputation and influence in the region.

Will President Obama rebuild our relationship with the south on a foundation of genuine respect for democracy and sovereignty? Or will it be more of the same superpower policies, this time cloaked in more collaborative and intelligent rhetoric?

The spirit of partnership Obama brought with him to the summit, plus his willingness to listen directly to his counterparts, are hopeful signs that real change could be in the works.

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Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is founder and director of, co-founder of YES! Magazine, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America. Follow her blog and connect with Sarah on Twitter: @sarahvangelder

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