As Hillary Clinton travels through Latin America this week, the U.S. secretary of state will find it profoundly transformed from the relatively serene and accommodating region she encountered as first lady in the 1990s. During that period between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the 21st century, Latin America lacked the political stirrings, fragmentation, and disarray that now define much of the landscape.
It was also much more willing to hear advice from its neighbor to the north. In sharp contrast to the environment that prevailed when President Bill Clinton presided over the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 (when the now moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas was launched), today the region, led by Brazil and Mexico, is a rising force in its own right. Many countries have global aspirations and interests, and they expect Washington to treat them as such. The secretary of state is no doubt getting a taste of that shift as she visits South America’s Southern Cone of Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, as well as Central America’s Costa Rica and Guatemala.
To be sure, there is a reservoir of personal goodwill for Clinton in the region, as there is for President Barack Obama. Despite some disappointment in government circles, the administration remains popular with most Latin Americans, and Obama is likely to be cheered when he heads to South America for the first time in the next several months. But personal popularity aside, there are underlying frictions and misunderstandings between the United States and Latin America that are profound and growing. Building that oft-invoked “partnership” between Washington and South American countries looks harder now than ever.