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
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT