April 18, 2009
Continuing an interesting back-and-forth in U.S.-Latin American relations, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sought out President Obama at a joint meeting Saturday morning to give him a book attacking capitalism and American intervention in the Western Hemisphere.
"Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina," or "Open Veins of Latin America," by Eduardo Galeano, describes centuries of invasions and other attempts to influence Latin American affairs by outside powers, including the U.S.
Mr. Chavez handed the book to Mr. Obama after the American president spoke at a meeting of leaders from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which was taking place on the side of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.
"I thought it was one of Chavez's books,'' Mr. Obama told reporters afterward. "I was going to give him one of mine.''
A senior administration official later said the exchange appeared to be a publicity ploy by Mr. Chavez.
"Anybody who's been at international conferences with Chavez knows that if there's a camera around, he's going to find a way to get in it," said the official, who was in Mr. Obama's meetings and who the White House had brief reporters. The White House made the official available to reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The book exchange comes a day after Mr. Obama sought out and shook hands with Mr. Chavez and his close ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, at the opening ceremonies of the summit. And it comes after a week-long engagement with Cuba which saw Mr. Obama lift some of the strictest parts of the U.S. trade and travel embargo on that nation, and which saw Cuban President Raul Castro indicate he would now be open to talking with the U.S. on expanding political freedoms.
But at the UNASUR meeting Saturday South American leaders called for Mr. Obama to lift the embargo entirely, and several of them, including Mr. Chavez, criticized the U.S. for past actions in the hemisphere, according to the senior administration official.
"His comments about President Obama expressed the hope that things have changed. He was civil in his remarks. He was critical of the past, however," the official said.
Mr. Obama is spending Saturday in a series of meetings and working sessions.
"I have a lot to learn and I'm very much looking forward to listening," the president said in his opening remarks to the UNASUR meeting. The opening remarks were open to reporters to cover, and Mr. Chavez walked over to Mr. Obama as the reporters were being ushered from the room.
Friday, at the opening ceremony of the summit, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the U.S. has made some errors, though he didn't say what he thought those errors were. But he also said other countries in the hemisphere must stop blaming the U.S. for all problems.
"I think it's important to recognize, given historic suspicions, that the United States' policy should not be interference in other countries, but that also means that we can't blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere. That's part of the bargain," Mr. Obama said, drawing applause from the assembled leaders.