Obama reaches out to U.S. antagonists
President Obama wrapped up a weekend summit with Latin American leaders Sunday by offering olive branches to adversaries from Cuba to Venezuela - a signal of U.S. courtesy, he said, not capitulation.
The gathering of 34 elected leaders from the Western Hemisphere at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, took on extra meaning after Obama's overture to a former member, Cuba. The president lifted travel restrictions on Cuban Americans before his trip, leading to pledges of diplomatic reciprocation from Cuban President Raúl Castro and steps by the Organization of American States to reinstate his nation's membership.
Obama went a symbolic step further over the weekend by shaking hands and grinning with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who once likened George W. Bush to the devil. And he met with Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Bolivia's Evo Morales as part of his outreach effort.
At a news conference Sunday before returning home, Obama defended his willingness to talk to anti-American leaders - a pledge he extended to Iran in last year's presidential campaign.
"We had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn't buy it," he said.
Obama cast his outreach to Latin American leaders as a continuation of his efforts in Europe earlier this month to repair foreign relationships. He stressed that although the United States remains the most powerful nation on Earth, "we recognize that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them."
He noted that his decision to drop restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba led to Castro's pledge to discuss issues ranging from free speech and human rights to political prisoners.
"That's a sign of progress," Obama said. "The Cuban government, I think, can send some signals that they're serious about pursuing change."
The president also belittled objections to his hearty handshake with Chávez. Before the weekend was out, the fiery Venezuelan leader told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he will reinstate his country's ambassador to the United States.
"It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chávez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States," Obama said.
Nevertheless, the much-photographed handshake was criticized by some of Obama's political opponents.
"He is a brutal dictator," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said on CNN's State of the Union. "I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chávez."
Democrats disagreed. "We are talking to our enemies," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "It's sure a lot better way to go than we did in the last eight years."