Obama says reaching out to enemies strengthens U.S.

Monday, April 20, 2009
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, right, listens to President Obama on Sunday during the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. (Miraflores Press Office)

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad -- Defending his approach to world politics, President Obama said Sunday that he "strengthens our hand" by reaching out to enemies of the U.S. and making sure the nation is a leader, not a lecturer, of democracy.

Obama's foreign doctrine emerged across his four-day trip to Latin America, his first extended venture to a region of the world where resentment of U.S. power still lingers. He got a smile, handshakes and even a gift from leftist leader Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and welcomed overtures of new relations from Cuban President Raul Castro.

"The whole notion was that 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," Obama said, recalling his race for the White House and challenging his critics today.

"The American people didn't buy it," Obama said. "And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it -- because it doesn't make sense."

Still, Obama made sure to inject some go-it-slow caution and clear expectations for U.S. foes. On Cuba, he said Castro should release political prisoners, embrace democratic freedoms and cut fees on the money that Cuban-Americans send back to their families. Obama has lifted some restrictions on Cuba, and Castro responded with a broad, conciliatory overture.

"The fact that you had Raul Castro say he's willing to have his government discuss with ours not just issues of lifting the embargo, but issues of human rights, political prisoners, that's a sign of progress," Obama said. "And so we're going to explore and see if we can make some further steps."

He did not, though, offer any sign of lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, as many Latin American and U.S. leaders want. Obama acknowledged the U.S. policy in Cuba for the last 50 years "hasn't worked" but said change will be gradual.

In Washington, both Democrats and Republicans said Sunday that they wanted to see actions, not just rhetoric, from Cuba.

"Release the prisoners and we'll talk to you. ... Put up or shut up," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

"I think we're taking the right steps, and I think the ball is now clearly in Cuba's court," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "They need to respond and say what they're willing to do."

As for Venezuela, Obama's friendly encounters with Chavez at the summit drew intense publicity. Chavez's anti-American rhetoric has, in the past, led Obama to call him a demagogue.

Obama returned to Washington early Sunday evening. But even before he got back, Obama was facing condemnation from some Republicans about how he dealt with Chavez. "I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

The president brushed that aside, noting that Venezuela has a defense budget about one-six hundredth the size of the United States' and owns the oil company Citgo.

"It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States," Obama said.

Venezuela and the United States expelled each other's ambassadors last September. But during the summit, Chavez approached Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and said he was restoring his nation's ambassador in Washington, voicing hopes for a new era in relations.

"We ratify our willingness to begin what has started: cementing new relations," Chavez said Sunday in remarks broadcast on state television. "We have the very strong willingness to work together."

Obama's dealings with Chavez spoke to his broader message: dismissing arguments of the past, and respecting other democratic governments even if he opposes their economic and foreign policy.

"If we are practicing what we preach, and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand," Obama said. "That allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues."

He said of his doctrine for engagement: "We're not simply going to lecture you, but we're rather going to show through how we operate the benefits of these values and ideals."

The president said he found it interesting that many of the leaders talked about how Cuban doctors have dispersed throughout the region, and their countries depend on them.

"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," Obama said.

Central American leaders who met with Obama said they pressed him on immigration reform. They also said that Obama promised to consider providing better notice before the United States deports dangerous criminals back to their nations.

Even Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a critic of U.S. policy, said he found Obama receptive to dealing with the issues raised. Ortega said Obama "is the president of an empire" that has rules the president cannot change. Nevertheless, Ortega said, "I want to believe that he's inclined, that he's got the will."

Both Graham and McCaskill spoke on "Fox News Sunday." Ensign was interviewed on CNN's "State of the Union."

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