Skip to main content

What Obama should do after the Secret Service scandal

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Fri April 27, 2012
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
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT