PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD — In an interview with ABC News, Jeffrey Davidow — a senior adviser to President Obama on Latin American affairs and director of the Summit of the Americas — said that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rushed a photograph of he and President Obama shaking hands onto his government’s website because Mr. Obama is more popular than Mr. Chavez in Venezuela.
"Every president and political leader in Latin America, and many in the rest of the world as well — maybe not every one of them — really sees political benefit in being seen to be associating with President Obama," Davidow said. "And whether Chavez has problems with us or doesn’t, and he does, and there is this strained relationship, it is in his political interest, he thinks, to be seen with our president."
Davidow, a former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, said "there is a sizable population in Venezuela, probably the very,very vast majority of Venezuelans who have a more favorable attitude to President Obama than they have to him."
Asked if he was saying that President Obama is more popular in Venezuela than President Chavez, Davidow said, "yeah."
Davidow called Chavez’s rush to promote images and a description of his offer of friendship to President Obama "a little confusing."
President Obama, Davidow said, "smiled and shook hands with every head of state in the reception, and of course the picture of him smiling and shaking hands with Chavez gets the news coverage. All I’d say is a smile and a handshake doesn’t mean that we have a deeply different relationship with Venezuela today. Venezuela kicked out our ambassador a few months ago. The relationship is a strained one. It has to be repaired. I think it’s up to Venezuela to take some steps. I would not …read too much into the fact that the President, you know shook hands and was seen smiling because that’s what he did with 33 other presidents as well."
This morning Chavez made a point of — in front of cameras — giving President Obama a copy of "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent" by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. The 1971 book details centuries of exploitation of Latin America by Europeans and the US.
"I don’t think the president has had time to read the book yet," Davidow said. "He took it, he thanked him, and put it down on the table."
Davidow suggested that the president didn’t need to read Galeano’s book to understand how prevalent its view of the US is in the region.
"The President is very aware that there is in Latin America a suspicion of the United States for the past," Davidow said. "Whether that suspicion is justified or not justified the President has said look he is not here to talk about history. He’s here about to talk about the future. And I think it’s really interesting that the countries that are doing the best in Latin America, the ones that are surviving this economic crisis the best, the ones that are doing the best in terms of alleviating poverty, are very forward looking, not backward looking."
Davidow cited Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Colombia as examples.
In his meeting with South American leaders this morning, many heads of state expressed opposition to the US embargo against Cuba.
President Obama, according to senior administration officials, said that "the nature of our relationship with that country is changing, but it won’t happen over night." Mr. Obama also pointed out that the 12 South American leaders in the room represent democracies and should be concerned about the lack of democracy in Cuba.
"You are all democratically elected," Mr. Obama told them, "and we all need to have an interest in promoting democracy and the rule of law" in Cuba as well.
This is part of President Obama’s pushback on pressure to end the embargo, the notion that Latin American countries don’t protest the oppressive rule of the Cuban people but their undemocratically-elected government.
Davidow today called that "part of the historical baggage that Latin America carried with it and is almost a reflexive suspicion or anti-Americanism…Cuba is seen to be a member of the Latin community, it’s the David against our Goliath, and this sometimes, quite frequently, clouds the perspective. What President Obama has said is he wants to work with Latin America and he wants to work with those countries, and there are many of them, who have suffered the same kind of oppression and dictatorship that Cuba did and Cuba does suffer now. And he would hope that they would take that historical experience of their own fight against dictatorship into their relationship with Cuba and try to promote some kinds of changes there."
And have they been responsive to that argument?
"That argument is something that has greater validity now coming from President Obama," Davidow said. "I think that they see he’s interested and moving down a new path. He says he’s going to go slowly. Things aren’t going to change overnight. I think there is a sense that there can be change. But it’s something that is going to take time and they want to be a part of it."
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller