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Obama pays attention to Latin America

By Ana Navarro, CNN Contributor
May 4, 2013 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • GOP strategist Ana Navarro joined group of U.S. Hispanic leaders to talk with President Obama
  • Obama wanted to discuss issues ahead of his trip to Mexico, Latin America
  • Navarro: President to focus on economic opportunities, trade and commerce ties
  • She says he should talk about economic benefits of a modernized immigration system

Editor's note: Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.

(CNN) -- I got a rather weird invitation last week. I am a Republican strategist who often takes to the CNN airwaves to criticize President Obama. When the rather official-looking e-mail arrived inviting me to share my thoughts with the president, well, let's just say it made me highly suspicious I was getting punked.

But it wasn't a joke. Apparently, President Obama's charm offensive extends beyond Republicans in Congress to occasionally critical Republican pundits.

Last Monday, I joined a small group of U.S. Hispanic leaders in meeting with President Obama, ahead of his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica this week. Before the meeting, several friends asked me: "Why is Obama going to Latin America?"

Ana Navarro
Ana Navarro

It's a legitimate question. It's not often that U.S. presidents travel to Latin America without the specific purpose of participating in a summit or visiting an area ravaged by a natural disaster. But it seems that President Obama's only reason for going is to pay the region some attention, recognize the role of these countries as strategic partners of the United States and service the relationship.

Good for him. Every now and then, it's wise to drop in on neighbors for a friendly visit -- just because. For decades, Latin America has been on the back burner and only became of interest when war or another crisis erupted. My friends there frequently tell me they feel neglected by "Tío Sam."

President Obama laid out a thoughtful and broad approach to the bilateral relationship with Mexico and Central America. Too often when we think of this region, we think only of problems. There are plenty of those: violence, gangs, drug trafficking, border security, corruption, political instability. But plenty of positive things can be highlighted, and it seems that is what President Obama wants to do.

Obama faces reality in Mexico drug war
Obama visiting major trade partners

The trip is intended to cast a light on economic opportunities and joint interests in commerce between the United States and Latin America, and competing globally as a united block.

He plans to give a forward-looking speech in Mexico, focusing on how the economies of the two countries are intertwined and how together, they can better compete in the international economy.

A marker of success for this trip would be to convince Mexico that the United States considers it a full strategic partner. In Central America, the president intends to recommit to fostering improved trade with the countries of the isthmus. We have CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which the administration would like to see working better.

Other issues, such as immigration, will always creep into a conversation about Latin America and U.S. ties. The Mexicans and Central Americans don't like it when we North Americans preach to them about their internal politics, and we wouldn't like it much more if they did the same to us. Mexico is not the place to go debate or advance U.S. immigration legislation.

But it would make sense to promote the economic benefits of a modernized and streamlined immigration system that would allow the regulated flow of tourists and workers from Latin America.

It's a good thing that President Obama is making this trip. Afterward, the key question becomes what the tangible followup will be.

In order to develop healthy and productive ties with the region, the engagement has to be long-term and sustained. Our Cabinet secretaries and other high-level administration officials should also be deployed on a mission of strengthening relationships. I suggested to President Obama that he find a way to send U.S. Hispanic civic leaders and professionals as good will ambassadors.

Also, President Obama should issue a statement on the violence and political strife going on in Venezuela since last month's election. The words of a U.S. president carry great weight. It is important for Venezuelans to know that the international community is concerned about what is happening in their country.

As we left the meeting, I wished President Obama good luck on his trip and left him with one parting thought: "Keep a close eye on the Secret Service this time..."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ana Navarro.

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