Obama Tries to Reassure Latin America About a Future With Donald Trump


President Obama greeted people on Saturday after a town hall event with a group of students and young leaders in Lima, Peru. Credit Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

LIMA, Peru — President Obama said here on Saturday that, while President-elect Donald J. Trump was unlikely to reverse the warming of ties with Cuba, he would almost certainly re-examine trade deals in Latin America.

“There are going to be tensions that arise, probably around trade more than anything,” Mr. Obama told an audience of students and young leaders from Latin America. “Because the president-elect campaigned on looking at every trade policy and potentially reversing those policies.”

Even on trade, though, Mr. Trump will have a tough time making drastic changes to United States policy, Mr. Obama said.

“But once they look at how it’s working, I think they’ll actually determine that it’s working for both the United States and our partners,” Mr. Obama said.

“The friendships we’ve established with countries like Peru, the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, investments we’re making in trade, environmental policies and so forth — all those things I expect to continue,” he added.

Mr. Trump has offered contradictory views on Cuban relations. Early in his campaign, Mr. Trump claimed to support restoring ties, but he said more recently in Miami that Mr. Obama should have gotten a better deal.

Mr. Obama was speaking to aspiring entrepreneurs and civil society leaders about how to improve their lives and countries — one of his preferred activities — during the last stop of his final overseas trip as president. He began his trip on Tuesday in Greece, went to Germany on Wednesday and flew to Peru on Friday to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting. Along the way, he has tried, with limited success, to reassure audiences that Mr. Trump will not discard the agreements and priorities that Mr. Obama has devoted much of his presidency to advancing.

His toughest task was here at a summit meeting of an organization that helped birth the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, an accord that is almost certainly dead as a result of Mr. Trump’s victory. Also, one of Mr. Trump’s signature campaign strategies was to demonize immigrants from Latin America, and he referred to those crossing the border from Mexico as rapists and criminals. Just about every question posed to Mr. Obama from the audience here had to do with the anxiety Mr. Trump has stirred in this part of the world.

“The United States is such a big country that, after any election, people are uncertain,” Mr. Obama said. “I think it will be important for people around the world to not make immediate judgments.”

He also predicted that relations between Latin America and the United States would not change much.

“The main message I want you to know is that you have a partner in me and you have a partner in the United States government,” Mr. Obama said to applause. “And we are going to work together.”

Part of the reason relations are unlikely to change dramatically, he said, is that the United States’ security depends on Latin American nations’ faring well enough that their people decide to remain home instead of attempting the arduous journey to enter the United States illegally.

“The best way for my daughters to be secure in America is to make sure that people in Guatemala or El Salvador are also feeling secure because, if they’re not, that may spill over the borders to us,” he said.

While the illegal migration of Mexicans has largely halted in recent years, gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala has combined with economic desperation to drive migrants from those countries to seek safety in other countries, mainly the United States.

Answering a question on Saturday from a Venezuelan audience member, Mr. Obama painted a dark portrait of the progress of freedom around the world, and said the wave of countries adopting democratic governance had reversed itself.

“You’re seeing some countries that are going backward rather than forwards in terms of freedom of press, freedom of the internet, in terms of respecting political opposition and civil society,” he said.

Venezuela’s economy is nearing collapse as its government cracks down on opposition leaders in an increasingly desperate effort to cling to power.

Mr. Obama also said a growing number of people were now arguing that democracy is incompatible with development. China’s success over the past 30 years in creating a manufacturing colossus through its authoritarian measures has some leaders, particularly in Asia, insisting that too much democracy can be detrimental.

But Mr. Obama said that, over the long term, countries that pursue democracy, transparency and accountability fare far better than those that do not.

“In this time that we live in, development is based on knowledge and innovation and education and new thinking and sharing of ideas,” Mr. Obama said.

In authoritarian systems, economies respond poorly to change because their populations are not as well-informed or as flexible, he said.

“You can maintain order for a while with repressive nondemocratic governance, but it will rot from within,” Mr. Obama said. “Over time, those governments fail and those economies fail.”

Mr. Obama told the crowd here to avoid fervent nationalism and identity politics, which he said could lead to conflicts.

“If the most important thing about you is that you are an American,” Mr. Obama began, drawing an implicit contrast with Mr. Trump, “if that’s the one thing that defines you, then you may end up being threatened by people from other places, when in fact you may have a lot in common and you may miss opportunities.” Mr. Trump has defined his governing philosophy as “America First,” and has already appointed avowed nationalists to top positions in his administration.

Mr. Obama described himself as a proud American, but said the world was far too interconnected for leaders to be wholly focused on their own nations.

“If there’s pollution in China, then that affects you here in Peru,” he said.

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