Obama: Bringing Latin America Policy into the 21st Century


When the Western Hemisphere 35 heads of state gather for the next Summit of the Americas in Panama this April, President Obama will have the opportunity to show off some historic changes he has made in US policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. Most dramatic was his decisive reversal of Cuba policy, ending the 50-year old US political and economic quarantine of Cuba and beginning directly to engage the island’s government and people. By sweeping away the most potent source of anti-US sentiment in the region, the Cuba shift could well be the single most important US initiative toward Latin America since President Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaties in 1977. And two other newly minted White House policies—on drug and immigration issues—will also be on display at the Summit. Together, they represent a broad realignment of US policy in Latin America. Washington, however, still has much to do to fully regain the confidence of its Latin American neighbors.

It should not be surprising that US migration policies have been a source of deep frustration in Latin America. The region’s governments resent how their citizens are treated in the United States, and feel bitter about the large numbers of them that are deported each year. With two executive orders in the past year, President Obama set in motion the most far-reaching changes in immigration policy in three decades. If fully implemented, nearly half of all undocumented migrants now in the US could become lawful residents.

Drug policy has been another chronic irritant to governments in Latin America. Indeed, many of the US’s closest partners and allies in the region have been harshly critical of Washington’s anti-drug programs. Today, however, pressed by Latin American leaders, Washington is showing a new flexibility in its drug strategies. President Obama has declared that the “war against drugs” is over. The US is encouraging each country to develop anti-drug programs that meet its own needs, and to interpret international anti-drug treaties less strictly.

President’s Obama’s Cuba initiative, designed to dispose of the Cold War’s most visible policy relic in the Americas, has resonated deeply throughout Latin America. It has been universally praised by the region’s governments, even those hostile to the US. By calling for the renewal of normal diplomatic relations, the removal of Cuba from the list of terrorist-supporting nations, and a rapid expansion of economic and cultural ties, the president has ended the US’s sharp discord with every Latin American country on Cuba policy.

It is way too early to assess, even in preliminary fashion, what impact President Obama’s new policy approaches to Cuba, drugs, and immigration will have in the region. They have hardly begun to be implemented—and they remain intensely controversial in Washington. In a politically divisive environment, with the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, there is the possibility that all of the president’s proposals could be blocked or reversed. The House of Representatives has already approved a bill to stop immigration reform. Even if they survive the current congress, they are still only half measures. They do not have the force of legislation and can be modified or upended by future presidents. Finally, Obama’s initiatives, no matter how bold and well-formulated, are at best, only first steps toward dealing with three immensely complicated and evolving challenges.

The limits of Obama’s immigration proposals are clear. Most undocumented migrants are excluded from the benefits. The legal status granted to those who qualify is only temporary, and they offer no new path to citizenship, even for long-term US residents. The deportations and the broken families that result may not diminish much.

Congressional action on all those dimensions is still urgently needed. On the drug issue, the US is doing far too little to reduce its voluminous demand for drugs and keep US weapons out of Latin America. While US policies are shifting, the process is slow and there is little perception of change in Latin America. Some US anti-drug agencies are resisting the new agenda. And, while some fresh and promising policy directions have emerged—including a focus on health and demand issues, community policing, more reasonable approaches to arresting and jailing of juveniles—nothing close to a consensus has yet emerged in Latin America on what to do about worsening drug and violence problems.

The proposed restoration of normal relation with Cuba still has a long way to go as well. The 50-year old US embargo and the US occupation of Guantanamo will continue to bedevil US relations with Cuba and the rest of Latin America. Until the Congress acts, the embargo and Guantanamo will remain as powerful symbols of a careless, heavy-handed, and sometimes callous United States. By blocking US trade and investment, development assistance, and travel and tourism, the trade embargo is also a continuing obstacle to Cuba’s economic advance.

Politics will importantly shape the evolution of US Cuba policy in the coming period (and drug and immigration policies as well). The 2016 elections for president and congress will surely affect Washington’s approach to the island nation. But US policy will also be heavily influenced by Havana’s actions. If the Cuban government retains its current authoritarian control, US restrictions and sanctions will likely also to be kept in place. Serious steps toward political and economic opening, on the other hand, will bolster prospects for normalization. The signals so far from Havana have been contradictory. As agreed, Havana has freed 53 political prisoners, a step facilitating diplomatic negotiations between the two countries. But so far, President Raul Castro has not shown, at least publicly, much interest in deep-seated economic or political change. To the contrary, he has insisted that Cuba will stick to its course of the past half century.

The next few months will be a period of intense negotiations and mutual testing for the US and Cuban government. Developments in this period, just prior to the Panama Summit, could well change the panorama, but the mood should be more upbeat than at other summit gatherings in the past dozen years. Raul Castro’s presence, the first for any Cuban leader, will be celebrated. And every participating head of state will applaud President Obama’s recent Latin American initiatives, especially his opening to Cuba. Still, it would be premature to expect any major shifts in the substance or tone of inter-American relations. Whatever display of goodwill emerges at the Summit, most countries in Latin America will continue to be wary and mistrustful of the United States—even as they pragmatically pursue cordial relations with Washington. Justified by considerable historical experience, Latin Americans will have doubts about whether the United States will actually implement President Obama’s proposals and sustain them over time. It would not be the first time that political changes in Washington produce sharp policy reversals—or that challenges elsewhere will again capture Washington’s attention and resources.

President Obama’s executive actions on Cuba, immigration, and drugs, have begun to align US policy with Latin American thinking on three fundamental issues in inter-American relations. But US ties with Latin American have also been shaken and transformed in recent years by other powerful trends and issues. Regardless of their views of US policy, Latin American nations are far more independent from the United States than ever before. They are more confident and assertive, and have expanded and diversified their links across the globe. As Latin America’s economies and institutions have gained strength, autonomy, and reach, the US has projected a lower profile in the region and its overall influence has diminished. At the same time, however, Washington’s bilateral relations with many governments have become more varied and complex. For example, while drugs and immigration remain critical concerns for bilateral US-Mexican ties, the shared opportunities and challenges confronting the two nations go far beyond these issues. Repairing the troubled US-Brazilian relationship will require finding common ground on the problems associated with international surveillance and other global matters.

Still, by actively pursuing reconciliation with Cuba and forcefully addressing two other festering problems in its relations with Latin America, the Obama White House has begun to eliminate several long standing barriers to partnership in Latin America. Although largely driven by domestic political realities and reflecting the US’s changing demographics and attitudes, the president’s decisions should begin to raise US credibility among both adversaries and friends in Latin America. If his proposals are implemented, and even more if they are ratified and extended by congressional action, they could open the way for a more cooperative and productive US-Latin American relationship. They may be President Obama’s most important foreign policy legacy, and should certainly do more than bring some cheer to this April’s Summit of the Americas in Panama.

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