What's in an Obama-Chavez handshake?

WASHINGTON Mon Apr 20, 2009 10:56pm BST

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) gives U.S. President Barack Obama a copy of ''Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina'' by author Eduardo Galeano during a meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad April 18, 2009. Obama sat down with South American leaders on Saturday, saying he was ready to listen and learn after promising an era of more regional cooperation and a new start with communist Cuba. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) gives U.S. President Barack Obama a copy of ''Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina'' by author Eduardo Galeano during a meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad April 18, 2009. Obama sat down with South American leaders on Saturday, saying he was ready to listen and learn after promising an era of more regional cooperation and a new start with communist Cuba.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - What's in a handshake? The clasping of hands by President Barack Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has set off a debate over what kind of signal Obama was sending.

To the White House, the friendly Obama-Chavez encounter at a weekend summit of Latin leaders was a sign of a new U.S. foreign policy aimed at improving relations around the world.

"It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States," Obama said.

But to some of his critics, the handshake was a sign of American weakness.

"Everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and meeting with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate, that he's acceptable," Republican Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, told NBC's "Today" show.

Obama and Chavez had two highly public encounters at the summit in Trinidad and Tobago -- a handshake, a chat and then later when Chavez gave Obama a book, "The Open Veins of Latin America," published in 1971 by Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with the Fox News Channel, said Obama's encounters with both Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega were not helpful and "sets the wrong standard."

He accused Obama of taking an apologetic tone about past U.S. policy on his trips to Europe and Latin America.

"I think you have to be very careful. The world outside there, both our friends and our foes, will be quick to take advantage of a situation if they think they're dealing with a weak president or one who is not going to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests," Cheney said.

STARK CHANGE

The Venezuelan leader's attitude toward Obama was a stark change from, for example, the 2006 U.N. General Assembly, when Chavez told world leaders that President George W. Bush was the devil and that his sulfurous stink still lingered a day after he had spoken to the same event.

The Bush administration had accused the Chavez government of backing Colombia's Marxist FARC rebels against the U.S.-backed Colombian government of President Alvaro Uribe, and charged he was responsible for spreading anti-Americanism in the region.

The leftist Chavez, on the other hand, accused the United States of having sought his overthrow.

Obama and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe were photographed sitting next to one another during the regional summit, discussing a stalled U.S.-Colombian trade agreement.

Dana Perino, who was White House spokeswoman for Bush, said she doubted Chavez' behavior would change as a result of his meeting with Obama.

"Dictators by their very nature don't like change -- and I don't think we'll see them change their behavior toward us or, more importantly, toward their own people one iota. It would have been good to see more visible support for democratic leaders like President Uribe," she said.

But the Obama administration insisted the meeting had already paid dividends -- that Venezuela might send an ambassador back to the United States and that Washington is considering doing the same.

"Look at what we got just simply out of this weekend. Two years ago, Hugo Chavez kicked our ambassador out of Caracas, nothing -- wanted nothing to do with being a responsible part of a community of nations," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

(Editing by Chris Wilson)

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