Obama and His Dinosaur in Trinidad

US coordinator of the Summit of the Americas, Jeffrey Davidow, practiced old diplomacy in contrast to Obama who pledged to listening, dialogue and respect

It's becoming a pattern: whenever Barack Obama implements a campaign pledge, the dinosaurs used to running things push back. The latest dinosaur to undercut the president's gestures is Jeffrey Davidow, US coordinator of the Trinidad meeting, who claimed that Hugo Chavez wanted a photo with Obama to polish his reputation with Venezuelans.

Obama is more popular than Chavez in Venezuela, Davidow added, which explains his rushing photos of their handshake to the Venezuelan government's website. [ABC News, April 18] He also managed to disparage Chavez's presentation of a book by Eduardo Galleano to Obama as unnecessary since the president already was familiar with Latin American grievances.

While Obama was pressing for a new diplomacy, Davidow was practicing the old. He added for good measure that Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia are "forward-looking, not backward-looking" Latin American countries, and described the unanimous demand for normalization of US ties to Cuba as "part of the historical baggage that Latin America carried with it and is almost a reflexive suspicion or anti-Americanism."

If Davidow was hoping to provoke an unproductive reaction from the Venezuelans, he failed, at least on Saturday. But his spoiler comments were in stark contrast to a president pledged to listening, dialogue and respect. Obama's modest relaxation of restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, combined with his Justice Department's prosecution of the anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posades Carrillo, has unleashed a momentum for policy change that may be unstoppable.

Who is Jeffrey Davidow? It might be fair to ask, who really knows? He was a political officer at the US embassy in Chile from 1971-74, during the carrying out of the coup and repression against the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. In a March 3, 1974 memo, later declassified, Davidow wrote to Chilean officials of a "conspiracy on the part of the enemies of Chile to paint the junta in the worst possible terms." [Boston Phoenix, Dec. 16-23, 1999]

Later Davidow was ambassador to Mexico during the Chiapas crisis, where he told the Mexican media "we don't know of any [right-wing] paramilitary groups in Chiapas." [Boston Phoenix, Dec. 16-23, 1999].

Davidow was ambassador to Venezuela from 1993 to 1996, defending the social order which fell to the Chavez political revolution two years later.

He retired from government in 2003 to head the Institute of the Americas, which describes itself as being "recognized as a leader in promoting regional integration, economic development and efficient government in the western hemisphere." The Institute's board is heavy with energy firms, real estate investors, and San Diego-based research entities, including Chevron, Sempra LNG, Skanska [pipelines], the Barrick Gold Corporation [Canada], J.P. Morgan, Petrobras Energy [Argentina], and the Oil Industry Association of Ecuador.

In September 2007, Davidow chaired the regional meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Cancun, where he criticized what he called the "creeping coup" happening through the democratic election of Chavez in Venezuela. It was a strange turn of phrase since Chavez had been the target of an actual coup in earlier years. In moderating a panel, Davidow explained the democratic election of Chavez as a "creeping coup" as follows:

"What do other countries do when a country votes itself out of democracy? It's an interesting question. At least it's interesting to me."

He also warned of the dangerous threat to future oil supplies from Venezuela resulting from the "creeping coup":

"What does it mean when the previous principle providers of petroleum to the US suffer declines in their production levels?"

Davidow added the question of what to do with a democratic country which also has become "a major transshipment point for drugs to the US and Europe", a claim meant to insist on the "integration" of American Drug Enforcement Agency operatives on the ground in Venezuela.

These were explosive questions, all but suggesting the need for a Cold War against Caracas, if not regime change.

Why Obama named Davidow to head the US presence at Trinidad remains to be explored. But it suggests a trademark Obama approach, to reassure the old guard and seek their approval of and participation in his proposed new directions. Seeming defensive about his role, Davidow tried to wrap himself in the pages of the once-liberal Washington Post in an exchange with Steve Clemon of the New America Foundation on April 10:

"And lest you think, and I'm sure some of you do, that I am some sort of ideologue on this, take a look at the lead editorial in today's Washington Post. Maybe you think they are a bunch of ideologues as well, but I think they say it much better than I do." [Talk Left, April 10]

TOM HAYDEN is the author of The Long Sixties, From 1960 to Barack Obama [Paradigm, August 2009]

This article appeared in The Huffington Post on April 19,2009