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Obama's Man in Latin America

By Peter Hakim
América Economía, November 21, 2009

(Versión en español aquí)

Arturo Valenzuela is taking over the top Latin American policy job at a rough time for U.S. relations in the hemisphere. While President Obama retains the respect and good will of most governments in the region, the Administration’s hemispheric policies have disappointed many in Latin America and in Washington. Unsurprisingly, Republicans accuse the White House of being too soft on Hugo Chavez, and neglecting Colombia and other U.S. allies. Democrats are unhappy that the Administration’s promised shift in policy direction has been slow in coming. Brazilian President Lula da Silva has complained about President Obama’s lack of interest in hemispheric affairs, a concern shared by many others in the region. His unmatched knowledge of Latin America and ample government experience, notwithstanding, Valenzuela faces a tough agenda.
Honduras is his most urgent priority. U.S. post-coup policy initially illustrated the Administration’s commitment to multilateralism, but recent measures threaten to isolate Washington in the hemisphere. Most Latin American governments were unhappy with the U.S. proposal to recognize the results of Honduran presidential elections on November 29 regardless of whether President Zelaya is reinstated.

The challenge for Valenzuela is to find a formula for taking advantage of the elections to resolve the crisis without further polarizing inter-American relations and alienating much of the region. If that proves impossible, he will have to manage the negative consequences of a widely unpopular U.S. decision.
Another critical task for the new assistant secretary is to reassure Colombia of continuing U.S. support as it battles guerrillas and drug traffickers, and faces neighboring Venezuela’s aggressive threats of war. The Colombian government is already disheartened by the Obama Administration’s failure to pursue congressional ratification of the its free trade accord with the U.S., and by a growing chorus of criticism about Colombia. Colombia is not so much worried that Venezuela will start a war. Its concern is that Chavez will step up aid to the FARC guerrillas, who already enjoy safe haven in Venezuela, which could prolong and intensify the country’s internal conflict. But the Obama Administration’s challenge is more complex than merely helping Colombia withstand Venezuela’s bullying tactics. It must also work to persuade Colombia’s government to do more to curb abuses of human rights in the country, better control its intelligence and security services, and make sure to keep paramilitary forces fully disarmed. Washington must also assure other South American countries that U.S. access to Colombian military bases is no threat to any of them—and, in addition, avoid needlessly provoking Venezuela.
Valenzuela will also be pressed by many (in Washington and Latin America) to more forcefully respond to Venezuela and its ALBA allies. This will require a delicate balancing act. Confrontation with Hugo Chavez is usually counterproductive, most often emboldening rather than containing him. Washington also has to be wary that its treatment of Venezuela not harm its relations with other nations. Still, it will be hard for the U.S. to ignore Chavez’s blatant violations of democratic norms at home, his frequent interventions in the affairs of other countries, and his deepening relations with Iran. It will require attentive management. Flexibility is critical—and so are transparency and regular consultations with other governments in the region.
Getting relations with Brazil on track should be high on Valenzuela’s list of challenges.  It is currently a task made much harder by the delay in the Senate’s confirmation of Thomas Shannon as the new ambassador. Expectations for productive cooperation with Brazil, on energy and climate change, non-proliferation, the Doha trade round, and other matters, have so far been frustrated by policy disagreements and divergent approaches to many key issues, yet the U.S. agenda in Latin America increasingly depends on the quality of U.S.-Brazilian ties.  The Adminstration’s challenge is not only to find common ground with Brazil; it is also to persuade the U.S. congress of the need for a new U.S. trade and energy rule that takes better account of Brazil’s significance for U.S. foreign policy.
With his extensive experience, public and private, in dealing with Mexico, Valenzuela is deeply aware of the country’s multiple problems, including the steepest economic downturn in all of Latin America and a relentless wave of crime and violence. He fully understands the prime importance of the U.S.-Mexican relationship, and knows that long-term cooperation with Mexico will require painful reforms and policy changes in both countries. For its part, the U.S. will have to fix its broken immigration system, rethink its drug policies, and, as NAFTA requires, allow Mexican trucks to operate within the U.S.
The new assistant secretary should do all he can to sustain the Administration’s step-by-step strategy of re-engaging Cuba, which has produced promising results without having generated the feared political resistance. A genuine breakthough is possible here.

By and large, hemispheric relations have taken a disappointing course during the first year of the Obama Administration, and the U.S. has suffered several political setbacks in Latin America. Although he remains widely admired across the region, Obama has surely learned by now that building a constructive relationship with the region will not be easy.  More than anyone, Valenzuela knows how demanding his assignment is and what he must accomplish in order to succeed.