¡Bienvenido, Barack!

Latin America is on tenterhooks. Obama is visiting the USA’s backyard. Well, Trinidad and Tobago at least. Date for the diary: 17-19 April.

Every year, the 34 presidents of the America’s get together for a high level chinwag. Speeches are made. Dinners scoffed. And, back in good old GW’s day, protests would be held.

But the arrival of Obama in the White House has thrown more than one Latin American leader into a spin. For more years than the average voter cares to remember, the mighty USA has played the role of imperialist poster child for the region’s populist leaders.

If you’re poor, it’s because the Yanquis exploited your natural resources. If you’re worried about global terror, it’s because of “Mr. Danger” (as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez liked to call Obama;’s predecessor) and his neo-cons in the White House. If your wages are lousy, it’s the fault of NAFTA, CAFTA or the bilateral trade agreement of the day. If short, anything and everything is the fault of the bullying big brother up North.

The Obama era makes that argument harder to sustain. Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the man who owes more to nemeses in Washington DC than anyone, went as far as to argue that the US electorate would never elect a black man. They did. Now he says that Obama might have “good intentions” but the "Empire is much stronger than him".

A cross-party Congressional delegation is currently in Havana looking to smooth the cracks of nearly half-a-century of bilateral acrimony. 

Likewise, Chávez has had to rethink his strategy. A cooling towards the USA seems to be taking place in Caracas. The Venezuelan premier went as far as to say that he’s willing to press the “reset” button on US-Venezuelan relations. This is the man who claims the FBI is obsessed with masterminding his assassination.

The situation in Bolivia remains less clear. Evo Morales threw out the US ambassador last year, accusing him of spying. That’s the diplomatic version of telling a country to ‘Go F*** Itself’. Not an easy one to come back from, even with a change of officeholder.

As for the rest of the region, presidents are toppling over themselves for a photo op with Obama. Brazil’s Lula da Silva got there first, all smiles for the camera during a recent visit to Washington.

Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner meanwhile was (I’m reliably informed by a first-hand witness) hopping round the room like a schoolgirl when Obama phoned her soon after his election. They discussed Borges. And Kirchner told him he reminded her of General Perón. From a self-styled Evita, that’s flattery personified.

The presidents of Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and most of Central America (notably minus Nicaragua) are long-standing chums of the US, whoever’s in power. They too will be in the queue for a private audience at next week’s Summit of the America.

For all the attention that he’s generating here in Latin America, Obama has remained fairly silent so far on Latin American affairs. Expect Venezuela and Cuba to dominate the media’s attention. But the significance of the Trinidad meeting will all be about building bridges in the corridors. As well as the photos ops, of course.