BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — On the eve of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's visit today to the White House to discuss trade, energy and global warming issues, U.S. diplomats reacted coolly to his other agenda item: his offer to mediate with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
Lula has received the approval of Chavez, a longtime critic of U.S. policy, to act as a "bridge" between the two countries, whose relations have been rocky in recent years. Ugly invective flew in both directions during the Bush administration, which Chavez often accused of "Yankee imperialism." The two countries expelled each other's ambassadors last year.
"We appreciate Brazil's interest in promoting constructive dialogue throughout the region," Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said in a news briefing Friday in Washington. "Ultimately, our willingness to engage constructively with countries . . . depends on a reciprocal willingness on their part to engage with us."
The Brazilian president is the first Latin American leader to visit President Obama. It's an indication of Brazil's importance to the United States as an economic partner, not just as a political counterweight in a region that has tilted leftward in recent years.
In addition to offering to help smooth U.S.-Venezuela relations, Lula will also urge Obama to "change the U.S. stance on Cuba" and eliminate the trade embargo, an aide told reporters in Brasilia. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said that such a move was necessary "to reintroduce the USA to the region."
Lula plans to lobby Obama for some customs relief on Brazilian ethanol exports to the United States, which are subject to a 54 cents a gallon duty. That prevents Brazilian sugar cane-based fuel from being competitive with U.S. ethanol made mainly with corn grown in the Midwest, said Aldo Musacchio, a Harvard University economics historian.
The tariffs are scheduled to expire in 2010, but they have been extended before, and Brazilians fear that the financial crisis may prompt the U.S. Congress to do so again.
Lula may also push for a bigger role for Brazil in multinational organizations such as the Organization of American States, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Latin America's largest nation in size and population, Brazil saw its economy boom until the global crisis hit hard last fall. It was the 10th-largest U.S. trading partner in 2008 with imports and exports totaling $63.3 billion, up 25% from the previous year.
Lula, an ebullient personality who has strengthened Brazil's regional leadership, is immensely popular at home. One recent opinion poll gave him an 84% approval rating.
Hopes are high in Brazil that Obama's presidency will usher in a new era of closer cooperation with Latin America, a region that has felt neglected since the Sept. 11 attacks, which resulted in a refocusing of U.S. foreign policy along national security priorities.
But the optimism is tinged with the dread generated by a global financial crisis for which Lula and others blame the United States. Before departing Friday for Washington, Lula told reporters the economy would be a primary theme in the two leaders' talks.
"This is not a time for blabbing but a time for doing," Lula said. "Either we take responsibility for the crisis and find a way out or we'll be like Japan, which took 10 years . . . to climb out of its crisis."
Lula's visit will serve as a preview of themes Obama will deal with at the Summit of the Americas next month in Trinidad and Tobago. The forum will provide most Latin American leaders with their first opportunity to meet with the new U.S. president.
Lula is expected to press the case for renewal of World Trade Organization meetings, as a platform for industrialized nations to agree to eliminate agricultural import tariffs. In exchange, emerging nations such as Brazil would give developed countries more access to their market for manufactured goods.
But Lula and the leaders attending the April summit may be disappointed.
Obama has yet to name top advisors to the State Department or the National Security Council and may not want to make key policy decisions yet, Harvard professor Kenneth Maxwell said.
Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Venezuela who is advising Obama on the April summit, said that those attending should not expect concrete results or policies to emerge.
Economics historian Musacchio said, "It's not clear that Obama has yet formed a coherent Latin American policy."
Special correspondent Marcelo Soares in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.