Relations with Latin America under the Obama administration have yet to follow a clear pattern. But the president's first White House meeting with a Latin leader, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last week, was a step in the right direction.
Brazil is the largest country in size and population in the region and was America's 10th-largest trading partner in 2008. Topics of discussion between the two presidents included climate change, energy, trade, Cuba and an offer from Mr. Lula to mediate issues with Venezuela.
Brazil, and Mr. Lula personally, have a lot of influence. They are politically at the region's fulcrum, left of center but not extreme. Brazil's position became more important when El Salvador, a bastion of U.S.-oriented rightist politics in Central America, elected as president on March 15 the candidate of the party of the former Salvadorian left-wing guerrilla movements.
Mauricio Funes, a former television journalist and the candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, defeated Rodrigo Avila, a former police chief and the candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, which had won the previous four presidential elections. These elections came in the trail of a 12-year civil war in El Salvador that killed an estimated 75,000 people before a treaty was signed in 1992.
Mr. Funes wants to stay somewhere in the middle between Mr. Lula, anti-American Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the United States, with which El Salvador has had excellent relations. Mr. Chavez's latest provocative move was to discuss with the Russians the possible stationing of long-range bombers on an island off Venezuela, recalling the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, not to mention the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. One of Mr. Funes' first acts since winning the election was to indicate El Salvador's intention to recognize Cuba, which previous governments of that country never did.
Whatever still remains inchoate in Mr. Obama's Latin American policy will need to be sorted out by April 17, when he will meet at least most of the region's presidents at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Mr. Lula is someone who can help him.