What Did Barack Obama Bring in His Suitcase?

The visitor was the same, but the conversations were different.

In Havana, the dominating idea was of bilateral relations: We are distinct, but we should forge a common future.

In Buenos Aires, the agreements were many, so the dominating question was different: How do we construct a good future for this region?

Certainly, in the face of those two types of dialogues, one may ask what the two have in common. The answer is human rights, a political issue where “never again” is also true for the United States, which in the past — especially in the Caribbean — thought it was lawful to intervene, invade or overthrow governments, while supporting dictators in the countries to the south.

Returning to Washington after his visit, the North American leader knows this signals the emergence of a new period for Washington and Latin America; a new reality that, regardless of who occupies the White House next year, cannot be rolled back to where it was before.

In Cuba, he saw it fit to recognize the failure of the policy of isolation against the island and the necessity of being able to have a frank discussion about respect for human rights.

There, Obama spoke frankly in the presence of Raul Castro. This discussion also brought up Obama’s vision of the dominant theme. They, by the way, recognized the differences, but the start of an era distinct from the one of yesterday became clear to both of them.

Obama knows that now, there won’t be an end to the embargo, but his visit is the start of a new stage between the two countries. And in Cuba, they also know that democracy and human rights will be intense themes in the debates about the future of the island.

But his words were also used to dilute the strong antagonism between the two countries — by those inside the island and those outside, and those in favor of the United States and its detractors.

This means no one, not even those exiled in Miami, thinks Obama’s trip was a waste of time. And those outside the island perceive that the way the themes were addressed will make reunion inside the island easier.

In Argentina, coupled with a big reception, Obama showed a willingness to declassify U.S. information on what happened 40 years ago during the 1976 coup d’état. That was the beginning of a dark era of massive violations, and the ESMA building* remains a symbol of what had been hell for many. The visit by both leaders to Memorial Park and the Spanish phrase with which President Obama concluded his speech — “never again, never again” — recalled the title of the Sabato Report, a time when Argentina dared to look at its painful truths.

Looking toward the future, they talked about Argentina’s role in the G-20 and the worries of both leaders about the events in Brazil, the destination for 40 percent of the products of Argentina’s manufacturing industry. Let’s see what is new, knowing the itinerary. First, the last milestone of the Cold War has disappeared. It was an anachronism, with Cuba not speaking to the United States. But, at the same time, the U.S. has been receptive by recognizing Argentina’s drama and being silent in their moment.

Yes, Jimmy Carter existed, and he emphasized his worries about human rights. But still, there were neither the circumstances nor the conditions to come to an agreement on whether human rights are the single most indispensable democratic credential to participate in the group of nations. And that is the predominant thinking in Latin America today.

And when — as it has happened in Argentina — democracy is exercised, and it produces the alternation of power, it is the complete institution of the country that wins international influence. It is the implicit recognition in a sequence that culminates with Obama, but which precedes visits to Argentina from President Francois Hollande of France, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy, and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.

Added to those days is President Mauricio Macri’s meeting with the leader of China, Xi Jinping, an appointment that will also clarify linkages and define new eras.

These all explain why Argentina is once again playing an important role in the region. And Argentina now has the task of setting up a discourse with Brazil and Mexico that reflects the outlook of Latin America ahead of the economic themes and policies that will be debated in the G-20 Summit, of which they are all full members.

Latin America is facing a new era. And the delegation that accompanied Obama noted him for these future designs.

What happened in December’s legislative elections in Venezuela, and in the referendum that aimed to amend the constitution to allow President Evo Morales to extend his presidency, reveal illuminating results: The citizenry wants more democracy, not less. They want more interaction with the ruler, not less. They want to be heard, not just vote when called upon by elections.

And along with this, the region is entering a phase where it seeks to construct multiple and diverse dialogues with all actors in the emerging global system.

The Caribbean is next after the visit of the North American leader, and then there is the political atmosphere in South America — and across much of Brazil for that matter.

We hope the democratic system is strengthened, the institutions work, and democracy does its thing. We don’t want judges to be involved in politics, but politicians must do their fair share by providing policy responses to crises and not hiding behind judges’ performances. If this does not happen, it would be a political failure.

Ricardo Largo was the president of Chile.

*Editor’s note: ESMA is the Spanish-language acronym for the Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy, an educational facility that was used as an illegal secret detention center.

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