BUENOS AIRES: Dancing tango, watching baseball and acting in a TV comedy, US President Barack Obama used cultural soft power to polish his country’s image in Latin America this week.
The landmark visit to Cuba at the top of Latin America and Argentina at the tail, saw Obama subtly try to dampen anti-Americanism, in a region where Cold War grievances still burn.
The tone for the trip was set early, when Obama landed in Havana for the first presidential visit in 88 years.
“Que bola, Cuba?” — “What’s up, Cuba?” he tweeted using heavy Cuban slang.
The five-day visit featured the usual meetings with dignitaries and presidents, but for much of the trip Obama had his eye on an audience of 11 million Cubans, 42 million Argentines and a continent full of Latin American unease about decades of US power.
On Tuesday he sat down alongside Communist leader Raul Castro — to watch a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
The Rays won 4-1, but it was never about the result.
“We share a national pastime — la pelota,” or the ball game, Obama said, stressing commonality between two countries that have been at ideological odds for half a century.
He also hailed cultural ties forged by the likes of US author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba, and Cuban-born singers such as Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan.
He astonished Cubans by making an improvised appearance in a television comedy sketch, striding onto the set and sitting down to play dominos with the characters.
“He departed from the script and gave me a scare because he started talking in English,” said comedian Luis Silva, better known as the character Panfilo, star of “Vivir del Cuento,” Cuba’s most popular television show.
“I understood a few phrases and I was able to carry on the conversation.”
The actor supposed Obama did it “to relate with the ordinary Cuban people.”
Some locals complained however that no ordinary Cubans were allowed to get near Obama when he made a tour of the old city of Havana shortly after arriving.
The whole visit to the island laid bare Obama’s strategy of fomenting change rather than imposing it from Washington.
This was Obama going back to his days as a community organizer in Chicago, trying to generate a critical mass that could alter the political reality on the ground.
The White House is betting that increased economic openness will lead to political change in Cuba, with the regime unable to separate the two in a way that China, Vietnam and the Gulf have done.
He championed a series of economic reforms that “focused upon supporting the recreation of a middle class… that needs more, wants more, will work for more, and is willing to be vocal about their desires,” said John Kavulich, head of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Obama also tried to show the softer side of US power in Argentina, where many harbor resentment at Washington’s support for past coups and dictatorships.
His trip to Buenos Aires coincided with the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought the country’s last murderous military regime to power.
Victims’ groups had been angered by the date chosen for Obama’s visit, given the US support for the coup at the time.
As Argentines prepared mass demonstrations to remember the victims of the dictatorship, he appeared at a memorial to the fallen.
Alongside Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri, Obama tossed three white roses into the La Plata River in memory of those who were executed by the regime.
He also softened up Argentines during the two-day trip with cultural references.
Obama projected a more amenable image of an American leader, one who is not afraid to tango with a starlet, glug on Argentina’s national beverage mate or joke about wanting to meet a soccer superstar.
At a state dinner he glided slightly, somewhat haltingly, with acclaimed tanguera Mora Godoy, who in 2006 appeared topless in the Argentine edition of Playboy magazine.
The US president “was telling me he didn’t know how to dance (tango),” Godoy told the newspaper La Nacion. “I told him ‘just follow me’.
“He said ‘OK’, and then he started to dance. Then I started following his lead because he is a very good dancer.”
US First Lady Michelle Obama joined in the tango, pairing up with dancer Jose Lugones.
At a meeting with local people earlier, Obama joked about tasting mate and wanting but failing to meet football superstar Lionel Messi.
The president fondly recalled reading books by Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar.
He then headed off for some leisure time, hiking and taking a boat ride in a national park in the Andean resort town of Bariloche.
That did not win him any praise from his opponents back home in the United States, coming in the wake of the Brussels attacks, but Argentines were wooed.