A Disappointing First Year: Obama & Latin America

President Lula da Silva of Brazil does not mince words. One year, almost to the day, after President Obama’s historic election, the Brazilian leader told the Financial Times that the US was “not paying attention to Latin America”—signaling that the Obama Administration was not acting much differently that its predecessors.

The April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago brought President Obama together with the Western Hemisphere’s 34 other elected heads of state. This was not widely viewed in Washington as the ideal setting for the new president’s debut into the divisive world of hemispheric politics—with which he had virtually no experience. The Summit, nonetheless, was a successful start. The spotlight remained on Obama for the bulk of the two-day meeting, and gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate his political and personal skills.

President Obama did not offer a grand vision or dramatically new substantive direction for US policy toward Latin America. He did not, for example, try to revive the once dominant—but now dissipated—vision of an economically integrated hemisphere, with the free movement of goods and capital among every nation of the Americas.  Nor did he talk about a “community of democracies” in the Americas that would collectively protect and advance democratic governance in the region. Neither idea makes much sense today in a hemisphere rent by political and ideological fractures, where governments distrust one another and disagree about what democracy is.

Instead, what Obama promised was a change in style—fundamentally a turn to multilateralism and enhanced cooperation, and new efforts to more closely align US and Latin American policy agendas. The assembled leaders from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada applauded his pledge to “seek an equal partnership” and welcomed his acknowledgement that the US has at times “been disengaged” and “sought to dictate our terms.” Most of them view Obama as a breath fresh air after eight years of the intensely disliked President Bush.  A palpable change had occurred in the atmospherics of US-Latin American relations. The new President left Port of Spain with US credibility enhanced and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allies in the anti-US Alliance for the Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA) neutralized for the moment.

Inter-American relations, however, have since taken a disappointing course for the Obama Administration. The US has suffered several political setbacks in the region since the Trinidad Summit and little progress has been made on most of the “legacy” issues that Obama inherited from Bush and other predecessors.

Cuba and the OAS

Just six weeks after the Summit, in early June, the hemisphere’s foreign ministers came together in San Pedro Sula, Honduras for the annual meeting of the OAS’s General Assembly. The proceedings were dominated by the question of Cuba—and the US delegation, led by Hillary Clinton, was put under intense and unwelcomed pressure to agree to end Cuba’s 47-year suspension from the OAS. The Obama Administration had already begun a cautious, deliberate approach to the politically perilous task of re-engaging Cuba—and preferred to maintain that course, and not have a multilateral debate over this hot-button issue. The US finally signed on to a unanimously-approved resolution that set a path for Cuba’s return to the OAS—although with political conditions. Although the conditions were weaker than the US had sought, the result was a good compromise, and fully consistent with US policy.  Nonetheless, the US diplomats were angered by the insistent pressure they had been subjected to—to make a decision they had wanted to postpone.

The Administration’s own bilateral approach to Cuba has since begun to produce some modest but important changes—a relaxation Bush era curbs on remittances and family travel for Cuban-Americans, authorization of new US investments in telecommunications in Cuba, renewed dialogue on migration, and negotiations to establish regular postal serves—all without generated the feared political resistance. This step-by-step strategy will likely continue and may accelerate and could turn out to be a substantial accomplishment for the Administration.

The Honduran Crisis

Just a few weeks after the OAS debate on Cuba, on June 28th, the elected President of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power by the army, and replaced with a de facto government, led by former Congress head Roberto Micheletti. Honduras has since evolved into a test for President Obama’s Latin America policy—in both the region and Washington.

The Administration’s initial response to events in Honduras illustrated how the new U.S. approach —emphasizing partnership and multilateral cooperation—was supposed to work. Washington quickly joined the OAS’s 32 other member countries to condemn the military action as an illegal coup d’état and call for the swift return of the deposed president. Now, four months later, the coup has not been reversed, the de facto government remains in power, Honduran politics are still in chaos—and US policy has been bitterly criticized from all sides.

What happens next in Honduras remains cloudy. Recent US-led negotiations between the elected president and de facto leader—building on earlier mediation efforts of the OAS and Costa Rican president Oscar Arias—forged an accord that was intended to allow  Zelaya’s reinstatement (although with strict limitations on his power) and assure that presidential elections scheduled for November 29 would gain international recognition. But intransigence and lack of good faith of the two Honduran protagonists caused the swift unraveling of that accord, and it appears increasingly unlikely that a workable agreement will be reached before the elections. That means the Administration faces a critical decision—whether to sustain (or intensify) pressure and sanctions on the Honduran de facto government to accept a negotiated outcome or to recognize the results of the elections as the best means to resolve the crisis. Either course presents pitfalls for US political credibility both in the region and back in Washington.

Indeed, the Honduran crisis illustrates well how difficult it is for the U.S. to constructively engage Latin America. The extreme partisanship of U.S. politics, time and again, stands in the way of sound policy choices. In this case, the extreme position of a single US Senator kept two of the Obama Administration’s most senior Latin American policy officials from taking on their assignments.  Latin America’s political tensions, compounded by its ideological divisions and reflexive suspicion of Washington, present other large hurdles for U.S. policy.

To be sure, the Administration, even in the absence of two senior officials and with an overly crowded agenda, could have done a better job of managing Honduran policy.   At times, no one seemed to hold the reins on a day-to-day basis. U.S. decision-making in the complex and shifting situation of Honduras lacked consistent and authoritative direction.

The Honduran crisis also demonstrated the special challenges of multilateralism in a politically polarized region like Latin America. It is certainly more demanding than the U.S.’s traditional bilateral, “hub and spoke” approach, and its trajectory and outcomes are far less predictable. Multilateralism requires exceptional diplomatic skills abroad and adroit political management at home. It surely does not mean leaving the task to other governments.

Colombian Bases

In the midst of the Honduras affair, US hemispheric policy was further set back when nearly every South American leader condemned a US-Colombian agreement authorizing US troops to use Colombian military bases in their joint efforts to combat drugs and guerrillas. Latin America’s deep distrust of the US (despite their warm feelings toward Obama) was on full display as the continent’s other governments demanded to review the every detail of the agreement and sought formal guarantees that US military activities would be restricted to Colombia. Colombia’s South American neighbors may have overreacted (particularly given the US army’s involvement in Colombia without a single border violation by American forces). But it is true as well that both Colombia and the US managed the incident poorly. With greater transparency and wider consultation from the outset, the outcry could have been muted, if not avoided.

Venezuela and its ALBA Allies

Despite the handshakes and smiles in Trinidad, President Chavez has zealously stuck to his anti-US agenda in the Americas. He remains a dangerous and disruptive force in inter-American affairs and a relentless and malicious opponent of the US. Formally, US-Venezuela relations took a turn for the better when the two countries’ Ambassadors, expelled more than a year ago, were allowed to return to their respective posts—but that has not been reflected in the actions or rhetoric of the Venezuelan government. Rather than directly attack Obama (as he once did Bush) as responsible for US belligerence and ‘imperial’ policies, Chavez dismisses Obama as well-intentioned, but  too weak to curb predatory agencies like the Pentagon and the CIA.

Relations with other ALBA countries—Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia—are mostly deteriorating as well. Administration officials censured Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega for manipulating the country’s Supreme Court to get its approval to run for another term. Ecuador is enmeshed in a series of commercial conflicts with the US—although it is moving toward settling its difference with US ally Colombia. With the US and Bolivia appearing on the verge of restoring normal diplomatic ties, Bolivia may be an exception to the ALBA norm. But Bolivian president Evo Morales has joined the presidents of all other ALBA countries in echoing President Chavez’s war threatening stance toward Colombia and demanding the removal of US troops from South America.

Rising Brazil

Brazil’s rapidly escalating regional and global influence is a pivotal change in inter-American affairs.  Today, Brazil is a formidable pole of power in the Western Hemisphere and occupies a central political role in South America, where on many issues it had displaced the US as the dominant presence. Increasingly, Washington depends on Brazil’s cooperation and good will to advance it agenda in Latin America. On those matters which Washington and Brasilia can find common ground, most other countries are likely to follow suit.

The two countries, however, are often at odds over crucial policy issues. Moreover, Brazil strongly advocates new institutional arrangements for the region that would reduce the US role in Latin America. Nonetheless, Washington maintained productive ties with the Lula government throughout the Bush years, and the early meetings of Presidents Lula and Obama led to a warm personal relationship between the two leaders—sharply raising US expectations for enhanced cooperation on a spectrum of policy challenges.

But the Obama Administration, like its predecessor, is learning that Brazil is not an easy partner with which to work. For some years now, the country has conducted an independent foreign policy, vigorously and ably pursuing its own national interests. It does not seek any special relationship with Washington—and is a frequent and severe critic of many US policies. In recent months, on a variety of issues—including US Cuba policy, the Honduran crisis, and US use of Colombian bases—Brazil’s diplomacy has done more to irritate the US than to further cooperation. Indeed, genuine US-Brazil cooperation is rather shallow today.

While President Lula has on occasion helped to moderate Chavez’s behavior and curb some of his most extreme actions, Brazil will not openly challenge him, criticize his open violation of democratic practice, or even call him to task for his belligerence in South and Central America. Brazil also maintains a close relationship with Iranian president Ahmadinajad, has welcomed him to Brazil, and defends Iran’s right to develop the nuclear fuel cycle.  After promising initiatives last year, US-Brazil cooperation on the Doha round has stalled, with little progress on any of the main issues separating the two countries. Energy collaboration, which seemed particularly promising, has made little progress—although in good part due to the US unwillingness to reduce its excessive tariff on ethanol. Brazil and the US are not yet on track to develop a serious partnership on any major issue in the coming period


The Obama Administration has to be deeply concerned about Mexico for reasons that are almost inverse to the challenges from Brazil. The situation of Mexico has deteriorated badly in the past year—and neither the Mexican government nor the Obama Administration has yet demonstrated the capacity to address the country’s problems Mexico could turn out to be an especially troublesome foreign policy test for Washington.

No Latin American country has suffered more from the global economic crisis and the US recession. While Latin America on average lost about one percent of it gross product in 2009; Mexico will lose more than six percent and forecasts suggest its recovery will be slow because of political roadblocks to needed reforms in its destructive oil production policies and other vital economic changes.

Mexico’s economic setbacks have compounded its dangerous security problems.  Despites its fierce, three-year old military campaign, the Mexican government appears stymied by the drug gangs and other organized criminals who have been terrorizing parts of the country. The violence continues to escalate, wreaking havoc on public safety and the rule of law, exposing deep corruption in the nation’s politics, police, and justice systems, and, in some areas, challenging the authority of the government. The US supported Merida Initiative is providing Mexican police and military with improved training, equipment, and intelligence capabilities. But it still represents only a modest contribution.

Mexicans warmly welcomed Secretary of State Clinton’s recognition that the US shared responsibility for Mexico’s drug and violence problems—and appreciated hearing her promises that Washington would seek to curb illegal arms exports and reduce drug consumption. These, of course, are the primary sources of Mexico’s scourge of violence. But the hard fact is that US politics (including objections by gun lobby to any restraints on arms possession or sale) make it almost impossible to fulfill these promises—while economic constraints make it difficult for the US to substantially increase its investments in the Merida program.

US Drug Policy

Washington also has to be worried about the virulent spread of drug trafficking and violence across all Latin America. The countries of Central America and Caribbean are most in danger of instability, and will need far more US support than they have been receiving to make any inroads in dealing with the problems. But many larger countries, including Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia are also at risk. There are no ready answers and progress will take long time—particularly in the many places where the violence and drugs is connected to corrupt political and judicial systems.

There are suggestions that the Obama Administration may initiate a rethinking of US drug policy. His senior drug policy official has called for dropping the misleading use of the expression “war on drugs” and to begin emphasizing that drug consumption is more a public health challenge than a crime problem. And the centerpieces of overseas anti-drug activity—eradication and interdiction—may come under scrutiny as well. But these initiatives are only embryonic.  Despite a growing concern in the US Congress about the high cost, the collateral damage on so many fronts, and the lack of results of US drug policy, serious redirection of policy seems far off. The debate over alternatives has not even begun.

Legacy Issues

The complex issue of drugs, crime, and violence is one of several “legacy issues” in inter-America affairs that previous administrations failed to do much to resolve and have been left to the Obama White House. Other legacy issues include immigration reform, the trade agenda, and Cuba.

These challenges have been around for a long time, and have been particularly difficult to deal with, either because of fundamental disagreements between the US and Latin America or bitterly discordant, often highly partisan divisions in the US—or both. They mostly continue to be addressed in the same way year in and year our, with limited success. So far, the Obama Administration made progress only on Cuba.

Aside from a few marginal, humane adjustments in law enforcement against illegal aliens, like ending mass raids of job sites and improving (modestly) conditions of detention, the Obama Administration has not yet addressed the intransigent and deeply polarizing challenge of immigration policy—which now affects a sizeable majority of Latin American and Caribbean nations.

Just prior to the Trinidad Summit, President Obama announced he would press for new immigration legislation this year. It remains on the US agenda, but has pushed off to next year—after the mid-term Congressional election. But the prospects remain very uncertain President Bush, a vocal advocate for reform, was unable to gain passage of legislation that enjoyed bipartisan support. The economic recession and record high level of joblessness have added to the hurdles. A strategy of incremental reform that focused on changes that could win majorities, such as creating a path to citizenship for those brought to US as young children, is rejected by pro-immigration forces because they fear it will weaken the case for a comprehensive approach. Genuine migration reform may have to await a substantial expansion in the voting strength of the US’s Hispanic population.

The US-Latin America trade agenda is stalled. The Democratic majority in Congress opposes taking action on most of the outstanding trade issues—and the Obama Administration has so far not taken any initiatives of its own. Although President Obama has retreated from his campaign call for reviewing and possibly revising Nafta, the US continues blatantly to violate the now 15 year-old agreement by denying the right of Mexican-owned trucks to haul goods into the US. The White House has mostly ignored the signed, but unratified trade agreements with Colombia and Panama—and has no visible strategy for moving them forward. Both governments justifiably view the US as backtracking on its commitments. Colombia will maintain its trade preferences under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Despite the Obama Administration’s progress toward improved US relations with Bolivia, there are no plans to restore Bolivia’s preferences, and Ecuador seems on the verge of losing its trade privileges as well.

Despite some early optimism, the US and Brazil have not been able to find sufficient common ground to work cooperatively to secure an agreement in the Doha round of global trade negotiations. The two countries continue to disagree on the central issues that have long divided them—including agricultural subsidies, intellectual property, and trade in services.

Financial Crisis

Interestingly, what many feared would be the toughest challenge for Latin America, and potentially most harmful for US relations with the region—the global financial crisis—has turned out to be relatively mild, certainly far less destructive than had been feared. The economic and social damage in most places has been kept in check, and growth is returning to the region. And despite the fact that the crisis was essentially “made in the USA,” the recriminations against Washington have been limited. The credit goes mostly to the governments of Latin America for their economic management in the years prior to the downturn, which left nearly every country well prepared to withstand the external shocks. All this points to a remarkable convergence of economic policy in the region—which, in turn, may set the stage for a renewed strategy of hemispheric integration in the future, when the current political tensions and divisions begin to moderate.  But this is still a long way off.

A Disappointing Year

In the short term, US policy in the hemisphere continues to languish. President Obama has so far not made much of a difference. His aspiration to create an “equal partnership” with Latin America is no closer to being fulfilled than when he first announced that objective at the Trinidad Summit in April. This has been disappointing for many in Latin America, who enthusiastically welcomed the change in leadership in Washington, and applauded the Obama Administration for both its diplomatic style and promised policy directions.  The new US president retains a huge reservoir of good will in Latin America. While criticizing the US for ignoring the region, President Lula also insisted it would be helpful for “the United States to be more interested in Latin America”-- a sentiment that is still widely shared in Latin America.  But, as Obama has surely learned by now, building a cooperative relationship with Latin America is not easy. In order to succeed, the Administration will have to work harder, in Washington and in the region, and invest more of its already thinly stretched political, intellectual, and financial resources in this hemisphere. But Latin American governments will need to work harder as well.

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