Despite Crises in Japan and Libya, Obama Heads to Latin America to ‘Grow’ the U.S. Economy

March 18, 2011 - 4:56 AM

Obama on phone

President Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

( – Neither the ongoing nuclear emergency in Japan nor the conflict in Libya and looming outside military intervention there will prevent President Obama from embarking on a five-day trip to Latin America on Friday.

The three-country visit includes meetings with the leaders of Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, attendance at a business summit in Brasilia, and speeches in Rio de Janeiro and Santiago. Obama will also visit the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio and Mayan ruins in El Salvador.

In contrast to the president’s unchanged schedule, British Prime Minister David Cameron has scratched his diary for Friday and plans a cabinet meeting and statement to the House of Commons. The move follows Thursday’s passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing measures in response to the Libyan crisis including the enforcement of a “no-fly” zone.

A headline in London’s Daily Mail commented on Obama’s decision to go ahead with the trip: “Nuclear crisis in Japan, a civil war in Libya and where is the President? Heading for Rio de Janeiro.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney for several days has fielded reporters’ questions about whether the trip may be called off, given developments in Japan and Libya. He stressed it would go ahead.

“We are leaving on schedule on Friday,” he told a briefing Wednesday.

“It bears repeating that this is a crisis – there is no question about it. And it is a crisis in Japan. It is not a crisis in the United States,” Carney said.

“We are very concerned about our allies and friends, the Japanese.  We are doing everything we can to help and assist them.  We are very concerned about the safety and security of American citizens in Japan, and we are doing everything we can to ensure their safety.  But it is – we have no plans to change the trip.”

A day earlier, Carney said Obama could deal with the crises while traveling.

“He’s the president of the United States,” Carney said. “And there are major issues all the time that a president has to contend with, which is one of the reasons why he has such a substantial support framework around him when he travels.”

Citing pressing developments Obama has called off foreign trips before, but they related to issues at home. He twice canceled scheduled visits to Indonesia and Australia in 2010 – first to make a final push to get the health care reform bill through Congress one year ago, then again three months later, when the White House said he was staying home “to deal with important issues, one of which is the oil spill" in the Gulf of Mexico. (He eventually traveled to Indonesia in November, but has yet to visit Australia.)

Still waiting on the free trade deals

This is Obama’s first trip to Latin America since becoming president, although he did take part in a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009.

Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said Wednesday that Obama was “hugely popular” in the region.

Rhodes, Carney and other administration officials have stressed the importance of the trip for the U.S. economy and American jobs.

“The president is taking this trip because he is committed to growing the economy,” Carney said Tuesday.

“This trip fundamentally is about the U.S. recovery, U.S. exports, and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States,” Mike Froman, deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs, told a separate White House briefing on the same day.

Obama himself emphasized the importance of job creation in a USA Today op-ed about his trip. He noted that a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Chile had seen a 300 percent growth in exports of U.S. goods to that country since 2004, supporting an estimated 70,000 U.S. jobs.

Still, the president is conspicuously not visiting Colombia and Panama, countries with which the U.S. has negotiated FTAs that have yet to be completed.

Proponents like the National Association of Manufacturers say the delay in the U.S.-Colombia FTA – which labor unions oppose – is costing American exports and jobs, pointing to U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that the agreement would result in $1.1 billion in new U.S. exports each year.

Obama in his State of the Union addresses in 2010 and 2011 referred to the importance of the Colombia and Panama agreements for job creation, but Republican lawmakers say the administration has not clearly identified outstanding issues and put forward reasonable ways to resolve them. They are urging movement on the stalled FTAs by July 1.

“With 14 million Americans out of work, passing these trade agreements and having the president sign them is one of the easiest ways to help American-based businesses create good paying, private-sector jobs,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell argued in a Miami Herald column Thursday.

The U.S. House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade held a hearing Thursday on the U.S.-Colombia FTA, and plans more soon on the Panama agreement and a third pending one, with South Korea.

“Colombia is a key strategic market with exceptional growth potential right in our own hemisphere,” U.S. Grains Council president and CEO Thomas Dorr, told the hearing.

“The United States is already losing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual exports and this is compounded by the loss or non-creation of thousands of U.S. jobs,” he said. “Without removal of these trade constraints, the U.S. coarse grains producer will lose this market.”

During a White House briefing on Obama’s trip on Wednesday Dan Restrepo, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, said Obama had made clear the importance of the Colombia and Panama FTAs.

“We are committed to working on outstanding issues with the governments of Panama and Colombia, and hope to do so in a successful fashion that stays true to our interests and values,” he said.

In the earlier briefing, Froman said Obama has directed U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and his team to “enhance their engagement with Colombia and Panama to resolve the outstanding issues as quickly as possible this year and to submit it to Congress immediately thereafter, that is showing leadership.”