Skip to main content

What Obama should do after the Secret Service scandal

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
April 27, 2012 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 15.
President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 15.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • After the Secret Service scandal, Colombia asked President Obama to apologize
  • Frida Ghitis: Obama shouldn't apologize, but he needs to start taking Latin America seriously
  • She says the U.S. has been ignoring, at its own peril, a region amid its renaissance
  • Ghitis: Obama should push for stronger economic ties and partnership with South America

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

(CNN) -- The Secret Service scandal has all the elements of a salacious story: Sex, alcohol, national security, politics, exotic tropical settings and sex -- or did I already mention sex? But beyond the breathless coverage and oh-so-shocked commentary lie some serious repercussions.

The scandal originated in the Colombian city of Cartagena when an agent allegedly refused to pay a local woman the agreed fee of $800 for her sexual services at the historic white-arched hotel where American taxpayers paid for him to sleep while traveling on official duty.

Colombia has asked the White House to issue an official apology for tarnishing the country's image. The city of Cartagena, the country's top tourist destination, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its residents are bristling under the harsh and damaging spotlight.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

But the government's demand comes in a political year, with President Obama facing criticism that he's too quick to apologize for America.

Obama should not apologize. Instead, he should do something much more important, much more useful for all concerned, including the American people. He should take this opportunity to begin taking Latin America seriously.

It is sadly symbolic that we now hear about Latin America -- Colombia, and perhaps El Salvador and Argentina -- as places where official representatives of the U.S. government may have crossed the line. The incident and the coverage are emblematic of a low regard for the region.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Obama had traveled to Cartagena to attend a Summit of the Americas, a gathering of some 30 presidents and an opportunity for the U.S. to strengthen ties and renew a position of leadership in partnerships with its neighbors. The summit, as it happens, was a disaster for the U.S. Washington emerged isolated and unable to produce any positive results. But, of course, few people in the U.S. noticed, because the news focused on sex, prostitutes and vodka.

The U.S. has been ignoring Latin America, at its own peril, while other powers are capitalizing on the region's renaissance.

And it's not just the Obama administration. Remember when President George W. Bush declared, "the U.S. has no more important relationship in the world" than the one with Mexico? He said it on September 7, 2001. Four days later, on 9/11, Mexico fell off the agenda.

But while Washington has remained focused on admittedly urgent problems elsewhere, not everyone else has neglected Latin America.

Not long ago, Washington was the region's undisputed top trading partner. Since then, China has moved in. And Beijing has made inroads precisely at the time when Latin America is emerging as a key global player. Also making inroads in Latin America, incidentally, is Iran.

China's trade with most countries in Latin America has skyrocketed. Beijing has become Brazil's top economic partner, just as Brazil has emerged as the world's sixth-largest economy, bigger than the UK., Russia or Canada.

Washington, meanwhile, delayed and played politics with a free trade agreement with Colombia it signed six years ago. The pact finally goes into effect on May 15.

On May 15, Obama should take action. That's the day when the president should announce a new initiative to overhaul America's relations with Colombia and the rest of Latin America.

Obama should announce plans to promote trade and tourism, so that people North and South will learn about the other and erase dated stereotypes while spurring prosperity. He should convene a commission to explore innovative ways to combat drug cartels, an urgent issue for the region. And he should leverage America's huge Latino population to link the two sides and highlight a common history.

If Obama fails to do this, then Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, should take the lead. Because overhauling relations with Latin America -- improving trade ties, developing stronger person-to-person bonds, coordinating diplomatic and international policies -- will benefit both sides, and it will also earn votes to the candidate who champions the approach.

Colombia, as it happens, is the perfect place for Washington's pivot.

Time magazine carries a cover story called "The Colombian Comeback" on the most recent international edition, featuring a full-page photograph of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. That's because Colombia has truly performed a miracle, emerging from half a century of armed conflict and horrific violence to a position of strong economic growth.

The Colombian economy grew 6% last year, and it is on track to surpass Argentina to become the second-largest economy in South America. Colombia has recently become a major oil producer. OPEC members are trying to entice it to join the oil cartel.

Colombia still has many serious problems, including violence and a great deal of poverty, but it has remained committed to democracy and free markets. Its capital city Bogota is America's best friend in South America. But as in all neglected love affairs, the two have been growing apart.

Santos has repaired damaged relations with Venezuela and others in the region. He said that Colombia sees itself as "a bridge" between Washington and all of Latin America, including countries with which it does not have good relations.

As the American public continues to learn details of the Secret Service scandal -- and you can bet the coverage will not soon die down -- Obama has an opportunity to turn this scandal to everyone's advantage.

Don't apologize. Instead, make up for America's failings by changing course. Increase a push for trade so that the U.S. and Latin America can benefit from stronger economic ties and building a hemispheric bloc that makes North and South, together, stronger on the global stage. It will help both sides, and it will also help on Election Day.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT