The Obama Administration: A Difficult Year in Latin America

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2009 has not been a good year for U.S.-Latin America relations. Congressional Republicans blocked the appointment of key policy officials, and threw a monkey wrench into the Administration’s efforts to respond to the Honduran crisis and other hemispheric challenges. Democrats made it impossible to deal responsibly with important trade matters. They prevented approval of trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, and continue to bar Mexican trucks from U.S. highways. The Administration did succeed, however, in diluting protectionist “Buy America” approaches to economic stimulus. Despite their warm welcome at the April 2009 Summit, Latin America’s governments made life more difficult than anticipated for President Obama. In June,  Latin America governments pressed hard on Washington to agree to end Cuba’s suspension from the O.A.S.—a decision the U.S. wanted to avoid as it launched its own cautious strategy to reengage Cuba. When the O.A.S.’s initial response, endorsed by the U.S. and every other member, failed to reverse the Honduran coup, opinion in Washington and the rest of the hemisphere quickly polarized.  Most other governments opposed the U.S. decision to recognize the Honduran presidential elections and abandon efforts to restore President Zelaya. The Honduran crisis demonstrated how difficult it is for the U.S. to pursue multilateral approaches in a politically divided Latin America. Nearly every South American government condemned a U.S.-Colombian agreement allowing U.S. troops to use Colombian military bases to help combat drugs and guerrillas. Latin America’s deep suspicion of the U.S. (despite the good will toward Obama) and its intentions in the region was on full display. Colombia and the U.S. managed the incident poorly, but the visceral distrust of the Latin American governments still surprised Washington. Brazil, once viewed as a promising partner by the Obama Administration, has ended up disagreeing with the U.S. on many key issues, leaving both nations disappointed. Brazil was a harsh critic of the U.S.-Colombia base accord and of Washington’s approach in Honduras. Brazil’s deepening ties to Iran and President Lula’s uncritical embrace of President Ahmadinajed deeply troubled the U.S.  U.S.-Brazilian cooperation on the Doha round and on biofuel development appears stalled, although there was helpful coordination on climate change in Copenhagen.  In November, Lula said that the U.S. was “not paying attention to Latin America.” Despite the handshakes and smiles at the Summit, President Chavez has zealously pursued his anti-U.S. campaign. He has begun directly attacking Obama rather than dismissing him, as he did earlier, as well-intentioned but too weak to curb predatory agencies like the Pentagon and the C.I.A. Obama’s Latin American agenda will not be any easier in 2010. The U.S. needs to recognize Honduras’s newly elected president, Porfirio Lobo, and let him govern. But Washington must also work with the O.A.S. and other governments to find a better formula for collectively defending democracy. Perhaps most important, the U.S. should give renewed emphasis to regional economic relations. The Obama Administration has neglected economic issues—including the unratified Colombia and Panama trade agreements, problems related to trade preferences, energy and migrations challenges, and replenishment of I.D.B. resources. These are the crucial issues for most Latin American governments, and where the U.S. can be most helpful. Disheartened by the stalled trade pact, Colombia needs reassurance of U.S. support as it battles guerrillas and traffickers, and faces threats from Venezuela. Colombia, in turn, must do more to curb human rights abuses. Responding to Venezuela requires a balancing act. Confrontation with President Chavez is counterproductive, though the U.S. cannot ignore Chavez’s violations of democracy, interventions in other countries, and growing ties to Iran. Relations with Brazil need to be put back on track. Despite policy disagreements and divergent approaches, cooperation on many issues is crucial. Mexico’s problems, including its severe economic downturn and relentless crime and violence, have no ready fix. Plan Merida can help, but new approaches to immigration, anti-drug efforts, and cross-border trucking are more important, none of which advanced much this year. The deteriorating security in Central America and the Caribbean cannot be ignored, either. Progress toward the U.S. re-engagement of Cuba needs to be sustained. But it is not all up to Washington and Obama. Latin American governments need to work harder as well to build cooperation with the U.S.

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