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Amidst all the gestures and overtures, there was at least one mission mostly accomplished at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago over the weekend. Argentine newspapers reported on Sunday that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner might have managed to rustle up $1.5 billion in Inter-American Development Bank loans, which reportedly was one of her main goals at the convention.
But back to the big news the world over: every word, smile and handshake deployed by the illustrious Barack Obama, especially with regard to classic U.S. foes Cuba and Venezuela. Argentina was watching as closely as everyone else. But it's instructive to notice how differently different countries — both their governments and their publics — behave towards the communist or communist-leaning regimes in this hemisphere. As President Obama got some icy welcomes back home for looking too cozy with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Kirchner was getting some southern hospitality from Chavez while she tried to make her own way back home. The presidential jet — Tango 01, they call it — had to make an emergency landing in Caracas because of a cracked windshield. Upon which, Chavez lent his Argentine counterpart one of his own country's planes to get her back to Buenos Aires (and her ailing mother who landed in the hospital over the weekend, almost causing Kirchner to leave the summit early.)
But, unlike up north, no one in Argentina seems to be complaining about the good will between the two heads-of-state.
The lesson here is two-tiered. On the top layer, it's important to note the close relationships that Venezuela's government has with those of a number of other South American nations large and small (notably Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Nicaragua, to name a few). Any overtures to the most-maligned of them only adds to Obama's clout with many of the region's leaders — and conversely, an affront to one of them can be taken as an affront to them all.
Kirchner signaled as much when she requested of Obama (at his meeting with South American leaders on Saturday) that the United States not interfere in the "internal matters of Latin American countries."
The same solidarity goes down below, among the civil societies of South American countries, including Argentina. Many citizens here are critical of Chavez — but not as averse to him as they were to George W. Bush, and they generally don't see isolation as the best policy. In
the battle to re-win the hearts and minds of the peoples of South America, sanctimonious snubbing doesn't impress anyone down here.
Obama rode to Trinidad and Tobago on a chariot of conciliation and cooperation. And because of the ties and sympathies that criss-cross the region, he can't be too selective about who wins his affections without jeopardizing the whole project.