Obama & Latin America

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It is no accident that President Obama chose Chile as the site to deliver a major speech outlining his administration’s Latin American policy. Chile, after all, displays the set of features that the US administration hopes to find in other countries in region, as it tries to construct deeper partnerships in coming years.

Over the past two decades, Chile has admirably combined excellent macroeconomic performance with a concern for the social agenda and a commitment to democratic politics. The results have been impressive by any measure. The remarkable story of the miners has only added to a positive image.

The thrust of Obama’s speech had been foreshadowed in his Sunday address in Rio de Janeiro – and in fact the tenor and spirit of his Brazil visit. The central idea is to recognize the gains that have made in countries like Brazil and Chile, to celebrate their success in moving beyond military rule and developing formulas that could serve as examples for the rest of the world, particularly in the Middle East, where dramatic changes are underway.

For Obama it is important to overcome the US’s longstanding paternalism and instead pursue relations among equals. This shift in posture is more consistent with Obama’s temperament and background. It also better reflects new realities, particularly Latin America’s increased power and autonomy, expanding global role, and rising confidence. Obama is aware that the US influence in the region has declined, and that new actors – China especially – are more significant than ever.

Obama had touched on such themes almost two years ago, at a hemispheric summit meeting in the Caribbean. In that speech he memorably said that “There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.”

But the follow through after that speech was disappointing. Obama and his top advisors were inundated and distracted by other priorities on the domestic and foreign policy fronts. There was little movement on the substantive hemispheric agenda. As a result, Latin Americans now have lower expectations of the US.

Will Obama’s words in the Santiago speech prove hollow? That is certainly a possibility. There is little reason to believe that Obama will now be less consumed by other issues, as the Libya crisis clearly shows. In addition, although the core themes Obama laid out – security, trade and investment, economic opportunity, and democracy and human rights – are important, they are largely traditional ones that have been sounded by previous US presidents. The initiatives he unveiled seemed modest in scope.

In the speech Obama referred to John F. Kennedy’s famous Alliance for Progress address, delivered 50 years ago. Comparisons are inevitable but should be made with caution. The United States does not have the power and resources it once had relative to the rest of the world -- and it was unrealistic to expect a massive investment that the Alliance entailed. Latin Americans understand that the United States faces serious limitations on what it can do in the region.

Nonetheless, many Latin Americans will rightly ask if Obama – according to all polls, widely liked throughout the region – is making a sufficiently sharp break from the past and coming up with a fresh vision for inter-American relations over the longer term. The Santiago speech was billed as the equivalent of the one Obama gave in Cairo in 2009. But Obama, who is a strategic thinker and highly intelligent, did not deliver a speech that could serve as a framework for US policy towards the region over the next decade.

In the end, it may be up to Latin Americans to develop imaginative proposals that could provide the basis for the kind of partnerships that Obama promoted. There is space to pursue more collaboration on issues ranging from security to food to renewable energy. A shift in US policy is needed. With a willing and open President in the White House, it may require more initiative from the region itself to make that a reality.

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