The antagonism has been such that the mistrust of US intervention policies (especially in the last 50 years) leaves many countries nearly unable to even talk to the US in civil terms, let alone attempt to reach out and build a relationship. From Panama to Cuba to Nicaragua to Columbia to Venezuela, we have time and again proven that our interest in these nations is only to the extent that it serves our needs (in particular our business and economic needs) at the expense of the needs of the people in living in those nations.
It can reasonably be argued that the US has used it's superior military over the decades to impose an economic superiority and as a result enslaved the people of Central and South America to the whims of American priorities. Democracy be damned, if a leader chooses to defy American interests in the interest of the people they are responsible for, rest be assured, the US will intervene and the leader will not be in power long.
I believe I'm being generous here. I also believe I'm way understating the effects our policies have had to our South...
To make matters worse, we have facilited horrendous economic conditions in most of these countries forcing the inhabitants to migrate to places where they have a reasonable chance of survival. Namely, they migrate to the United States. This has created an interesting dilemna in this country. We've forced desperate people to come to the United States for work by any means necessary (including the imminent threat of death in the transport here). Once they are here, the ridiculous situations they came from means they are willing to work for anything, and they do. Suddenly we have this desperate workforce in the United States willing to work, work hard and do what ever it takes to prove they are worthy of staying here and suddenly our economic interests with in the United States have changed...
Employers lured by the thrill of cheap labor hire and hire and hire the immigrants. More immigrants come to the United States as word spreads of jobs. Employers have a huge advantage over the employees for one stunning reason. The employees are undocumented and subject to deportation by a simple phone call and by the current practice of the law (not the meaning of it, but how it's been practiced for the last 8 years), they are returned without even a hearing in front of a judge.
This spreads fear in the immigrant community of deportation. The fear leads to a willingness to accept any wage, and working condition no matter how safe and a willingness to stay in the shadows hiding in a society that only pretends to not want them there, but does want to enslave them as long as they are here.
And that's what they have become by the way... Slaves in America. Working in plain sight. They have been given no access to the legal system, they are paid in cash under the table and at wages not much higher than they would have made in their own country's but well below our current standards. They work in unsafe working conditions, who would tell and risk an ICE enforcement raid on the facility that could result in hundreds being deported, so they are silent...
And we as Americans have one of three reactions. You are either like me and are enraged and want the government to bring them out of the shadows, give them access to the justice system and allow them to work here legally and humanely within our labor laws so they compete on an equal level for jobs with all the unemployed. Or you are completely oblivious to the problem, don't care, don't pay attention and don't want to know about it at all, just want your meat and vegetables to stay cheap and have no idea why they are.... Or you are part of a rabidly racist anti-immigration movement who throws out seriously misinformed rhetoric about how immigrants are "stealing our jobs" or "living off taxpayer dollars" (by the way which is it...) and we should just "send them all home" the Dobbsian theory of immigration in America...
On May 1, 2009 we will again march in the streets of Milwaukee to demand these policies be reformed and human beings living in our country be treated as human beings. Join US!
And into all of this, comes President Obama...
So this is a small snapshot of the context in which our new president made a historic trip to Central and South American and the Cuba. In the middle of a firestorm of immigration issues that have no simple or even reasonable solution on the table on either side, President Obama went south to listen.
I'm not really sure the last time a US President just sat down face to face with dictators and diplomats and leaders of all political stripes from an entire region and just LISTENED.
No real demands, no real agenda, just listened.
This stunning development in US and Latin American relations is even more than I had anticipated. President Obama of course has a game plan to all of this, but the absolutely amazing tactic of actually listening first before negotiating is a pretty new concept for the American media and people to digest. They are sort of grasping to find something to write about and settling on Chavez giving Obama a book or repeated asking why Obama has had very few comments on the overall summit on on individual things that have been said so far.
Novel thought: Perhaps he's letting them just vent???
Have you ever had a discussion with someone who thinks you haven't been listening to them for a significant period of time? How does that usually go? They generally are angry and just want to have their say. You won't get very far with them just starting in with "here's what I think you should do...", will you? No. The best tactic is to quietly sit, listen to their concerns and let them vent until they are sure you have heard them. They will not hear you until you give their concerns that minimum amount of respect.
And that is the stunningly brilliant new tactic that President Obama has brought to the foreign policy of the United States of America.
Regardless of how this all shakes out individually by country and/or policy, just the simple courtesy he had afforded the leaders of Latin America of listening and letting them fully vent their concerns to his face, to the face of the American people is by far the most significant and important change to American foreign policy in the history of this great country.