President Barack Obama took advantage last week of opportunities to improve the U.S. relationship with countries south of the border during his visit to Mexico, then to the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain.
It was skillfully done and, although the success relied to a degree on Mr. Obama's novelty as a new president and his star quality, it nonetheless was not as easy as it looked. A certain antagonism hovers around U.S. relations with Caribbean and Latin American countries - in part from the disproportion between the United States' and its neighbors' economies and military capacities. As is apparent in today's economic crisis, the old saw about America sneezing and its partners catching pneumonia is not off the mark.
There is also some bad history. U.S. relations with Cuba and Venezuela, which Mr. Obama is trying to repair, are particularly septic and have a personal aspect to them. The story with Cuba is a long one, while the issue with Venezuela dates back only to the Bush administration, when the United States supported an aborted coup d'etat against its president, Hugo Chavez. The United States has, in fact, intervened militarily or in heavy-handed ways around the region. Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Nicaragua and Panama have less-than-fond memories.
Against that background, Mr. Obama moved toward disarming Latin America's distaste for U.S. Cuba policy by preceding his trip with steps to ease travel by Cuban Americans to Cuba and relax controls on financial transfers to that country. The response from President Raul Castro was ambivalent but basically positive and actionable.
With Venezuelan President Chavez, Mr. Obama's approach was more direct. He engaged with him personally at the conference and Mr. Chavez responded on a personal level. That is not to say Mr. Chavez has now come to be considered as cuddly as the Obamas' new dog. He still has troubling military relations with Russia and has put together, based on Venezuela's oil wealth, a modest alliance of countries and presidents that have taken anti-U.S. positions on various issues.
All of these initiatives, of course, will require follow-up. Mr. Bush started well with Mexico, then pigeon-holed the Latin American connection, post-9/11, as he pursued the wars in Asia. Mr. Obama's start with Latin America , particularly with Cuba and Venezuela, were important steps in the right direction.