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Optimism surrounds Obama's Latin Am. trip

March 14, 2011 at 2:05 PM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- U.S. President Obama travels to Central and South America this week amid optimism his trip to the region will begin a new relationship, observers said.

A potential budget crisis -- if Congress fails to pass a continuing resolution to extend temporary funding beyond Friday -- could delay the Friday-through-Wednesday trip, but if it goes off as planned, Obama should encounter a confident, politically diverse and economically healthy region, The Miami Herald reported Monday.

"South America, especially, feels much more autonomous economically and politically now," said Sergio Bitar, a minister of mining, education and public works under three Chilean administrations.

Many Latin American economies weathered the global economic crisis better and emerged more quickly than the United States, economic observers told the Herald.

The days of relying on U.S. paternalism or largess are "over … ended," Bitar, a visiting fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, told the newspaper.

For his first foreign trip of 2011, Obama selected Brazil, an emerging world power, Chile, an economically stable and reliable ally, and El Salvador, a Central American nation that finds itself in a war against organized crime, gangs and poverty.

Some in Congress say the trip is overdue and better produce results, the Herald said.

"The trip will mean little if the president doesn't get anything substantive. Just showing up isn't enough," said Carl Meacham, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar's senior aide for Latin America and the Caribbean. "We have excellent U.S. ambassadors in the region. Unfortunately, we have not seen the same quality from officials handling the region in the Obama administration."

Meacham said measures needed include steps to improve U.S. business relationships with Brazil as well as some signal that the administration is committed to getting approval for the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements.

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