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Obama Administration Begins Outreach to Latin America

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President Obama makes remarks in the Oval Office of the White House, 13 Mar 2009
President Obama makes remarks in the Oval Office of the White House, 13 Mar 2009

The Obama administration has begun moving on several fronts to repair strained U.S. relations with Latin America. President Obama meets Saturday at the White House with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and he is sending Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Latin American missions to prepare for the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

U.S. ties with Latin America came under stress during the Bush administration, which was largely preoccupied with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and had contentious relations with several left-leaning governments in the region, notably Venezuela and Bolivia.

But the Obama administration said it is intent on trying to repair frayed regional ties based on what it says should be reciprocal dialogue and respect.

Thomas Shannon (center)
Thomas Shannon (center)

As an overture to President Obama's White House meeting Saturday with Brazil's President Lula, the administration announced a mission to Chile and Costa Rica by Vice President Biden, and a Mexico trip by Secretary Clinton, both later this month.

At a State Department briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon cast the upcoming hemispheric summit in Trinidad and Tobago, which Mr. Obama will attend, as an opportunity for a fresh start in relations, based on what he termed "a spirit of engagement and constructive dialogue."

He said that efforts at outreach will apply to, among others, the Bolivian government of President Evo Morales, which has expelled two U.S. diplomats in recent months amid accusations they interfered in Bolivian politics.

"We need a full diplomatic dialogue and a high-quality dialogue. And regrettably up to this point, as we have sought to engage the Bolivians around the issues that have provoked their own actions, we have yet to receive what we consider to be a coherent or consistent response. However we will continue to approach the Bolivians in the hope that we can address the underlying issues that have affected the relationship," he said.

Brazalian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Brazalian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Shannon cast Saturday's White House visit by President Lula as a recognition of Brazil's "global ascendancy" and an opportunity to build on a U.S. partnership with Brazil on such issues as social justice, climate change, and development of alternate fuels.

Under questioning, Shannon expressed hope for an early resolution of an emotionally charged custody dispute over an eight-year-old boy, Sean Goldman, whose Brazilian mother moved him from New Jersey to Brazil four years ago without his American father's consent.

Both governments have said they consider the decision of the Brazilian woman to move the child to Brazil to have been a violation of the 1980 Hague Abduction Convention, and Shannon said he hopes this view is quickly upheld by the Brazilian court system.

"Obviously we've made it very clear that from our point of view, this is a case that falls within the purview of the Hague Convention, and that Sean Goldman should be returned to his father," he said. "The government of Brazil believes the same thing, and has said so publicly. Currently this case rests with the federal courts of Brazil. We're hopeful that the appropriate decision will be rendered, and this is an issue of great importance to us," Shannon said.

The child's mother died in Brazil last year but family members caring for him now Rio De Janiero said he has completely adapted to society there, and should be legally considered a naturalized Brazilian citizen.

The State Department said Friday that Secretary Clinton will visit Mexico City and Monterrey in two weeks (March 25-26) for talks focusing on key issues in the U.S.-Mexican agenda including the Merida Initiative, under which the United States is helping Mexico combat violent drug traffickers.

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet (L) speaks with Cuba's FM Felipe Perez Roque in Havana, 11 Feb 2009
Chile's President Michelle Bachelet (L) speaks with Cuba's FM Felipe Perez Roque in Havana, 11 Feb 2009

For his part, Vice President Biden will travel to Chile for a regional conference on progressive governance hosted by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet that will also include the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

Later in Costa Rica, Mr. Biden will be hosted by President Oscar Arias, who has invited leaders of other Central American states for a joint meeting with the Vice President in San Jose.

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