Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Does 2014 Hold for US-Latin America Relations?

Christopher Dilts / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Q: In 2013, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry made trips to Latin America in efforts to strengthen ties between the United States and countries in the region. However, U.S.-Latin America relations also suffered a setback after revelations about U.S. spying in the region angered allies and led Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to call off a planned state visit to the United States in October. What lies ahead for U.S.-Latin America relations in the coming year? To what extent will the Obama administration seek to strengthen ties in the region? How much will Latin American countries want to work with the United States?

A: Arturo Sarukhán, chairman of global solutions at Podesta Group in Washington and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: "The Obama administration needs to hone its foreign policy priorities in order to dedicate greater bandwidth to deepening relations with the region. However, a willingness to do so may not be enough to change the dynamics and perceptions on the ground. For starters, some nations may not be particularly interested in engaging, either for domestic, ideological or geopolitical reasons. Moreover, a one-size-fits-all vision for the Americas, like the '100,000 Strong Initiative,' no longer suffices. Regionalization has become too strong and the consolidation of competing architectures for sub-regional engagement too pervasive for this approach to succeed. The United States should therefore seek to focus on a series of policy drivers to develop an à la carte engagement built upon coincidental agendas with a subset of nations in the region, articulated on common interests. For example, on trade, the TPP and TTIP negotiations must push the United States to fully embrace a coalition of the free and fair trade willing in the Americas, using the only sub-regional model that seems to have traction today, the Pacific Alliance, as the core grouping. On energy, the shale revolution in North America and Mexico's movement forward on energy reform should pave the way for a North American paradigm on energy security, independence and efficiency, and along with the trade agenda, allow for an upgrade of NAFTA. On global issues, the United States can and should seek to foster common global footprints, whether it's on peacekeeping with the likes of Brazil, Uruguay and Chile, on human security with Colombia, or on the multilateral climate change and global economic governance agendas, with Mexico. Moving forward on drivers like these will neither dispel the grousing that the United States does not pay enough attention to the region, nor will it solve vexing challenges, whether it's the potential political implosion in Venezuela, the dramatic challenge of violence and transnational organized crime, or the urgent need to rethink Cuba policy in the United States. But they could well set the stage for more realistic and pragmatic relations with key players in the Americas."

A: Rubens Barbosa, former Brazilian ambassador to the United States: "At this point in time, when we speak about U.S. relations with Latin America, we are actually referring to the U.S.-Brazil relationship. The countries' relationship is strained and faces difficulties in getting back to normal. Latin America continues to be a low priority for the Obama administration, and countries that want to work with the United States are already doing so. The Brazilian government has been cautious to avoid a further deterioration in bilateral contact, as shown in the reaction to the suspension of the agreement on cotton and to the Snowden public letter to seek asylum in Brazil. To overcome the current political hurdle, the private sectors of the two countries should help put pressure on Washington and Brasília because the political and economic stakes are too high and need to be taken into consideration. The decision against Boeing on the fighter jets is a good example. In view of Rousseff's public request for an apology (which will never come) for the U.S. spying, there is only one way to settle the issue--a unilateral gesture from the United States that could be perceived as an important policy change toward Brazil. As Obama said in his last visit to Mexico, Brazil should be treated differently in the Latin American context."

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "Now that the Monroe Doctrine has been discarded, it may be time to stop discussing U.S.-Latin American relations. U.S. relations with the region are atomized. There is no Latin America or Latin American policy. The United States has largely disengaged from OAS operations--and is more distant from the region's countries than ever. Particularly damaging has been the U.S.-Brazil dispute over NSA spying, which led President Rousseff to cancel her state visit to Washington. This second major U.S.-Brazil clash in three years (the first was over Iran) may have figured in Brazil's decision to purchase $4.5 billion in fighter aircraft from Saab rather than Boeing. Despite the diplomatic efforts of Secretary Kerry (particularly toward Venezuela), relations with the anti-American ALBA group remain largely unchanged. It was the Europeans who grounded Bolivian President Morales' plane (erroneously suspecting Edward Snowden was aboard). But it is widely believed Washington was behind the decision. Some saw a possible thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations after Obama raised the issue of U.S. policy changes last month, followed by a handshake with President Raúl Castro. But with Alan Gross imprisoned in Havana and four of the 'Cuban five' still in U.S. jails, no shift seems imminent. Other obstacles are the views of many congressional heavyweights on foreign policy and Cuba's own repressive politics. Still, there are a few important relationships that offer some optimism. Colombians welcomed President Obama's unqualified endorsement of their peace negotiations, which suggested continuing U.S. assistance in the post-war transition. Despite differences over security policy, Mexico's wide-ranging reforms this year have generated enthusiasm among U.S. policy and business leaders--and could open myriad economic opportunities for both nations. Unfortunately, the United States has been slower to reform its immigration laws, which is what Mexicans most want from the United States."

A: Julia Buxton, professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy of Central European University in Budapest: "The United States lacks the will and capacity to address a chasm in regional relations that is set to deepen in 2014. There is nothing to demonstrate that the Obama administration, Congress, media or intellectual opinion has grasped the transformations in hemispheric ties of the last decade. The United States remains behind the curve on issues of high salience for Latin American countries such as poverty, insecurity and peace building, and is locked into a unilateralist mode that provides negligible space for renovation. There is a risk that 2014 will be a year when U.S. policy does significantly more harm than good--specifically in relation to the securitization of the drugs issue in Central America. Military responses and the export of the 'successful' Colombian counter-narcotics model will reconfigure the drug trade in new and more dangerous ways and fuel deadly violence and organized crime. Clinging to failed strategies reflects a U.S. mindset unable to engage with the altered perspectives or priorities of the Southern Hemisphere and a policy machine incapable of absorbing lessons learned. The hostile U.S. response to Latin America's drug reform debate is comedic in the context of Washington and Colorado. Where not comedic, U.S. policy will remain counter-productive, as in Cuba, Venezuela and unhelpful interventions in the Colombian peace process. For many Latin American countries, the priority will be consolidating diversified international relations and defense of national sovereignty. There are few incentives to re-energize ties with the United States and significant benefits from drifting out of the U.S. sphere of influence."

A: Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: "Brazil will begin to adopt retaliatory trade measures against the United States over a breach of a 2010 agreement that temporarily resolved a longstanding dispute over U.S. cotton subsidies. The president of Brazil recently canceled her state visit to Washington over the NSA spying scandal. And, in a possible response to the spying revelations, the Brazilian Defense Ministry announced that the government would purchase Swedish Gripen fighter jets for an estimated $4.5 billion. It was thought the leading contender was the U.S. company, Boeing, prior to the revelations. The United States does not have--and will not have for the forseeable future--ambassadors in Caracas and La Paz. U.S. diplomatic relations with the rest of the region are frosty at best. There is no likelihood that Congress will lift the embargo against Cuba. China has become an increasingly important trade partner of many South American countries, and the links to Asia will increase if the Pacific Alliance works. President Xi of China visited the region at about the same time as did Vice President Biden. There were, apparently, more deliverables, for the countries that Xi visited. While the recent visits by American officials are welcome, do they represent new policy initiatives? I think not. At the working level of the bureaucracies of the countries in the hemisphere it is business as usual with Washington--on issues such as visas and trade issues. At the level of 'grand strategy' there appears to be little in the offing. For the 21st century that may not be the worst policy option given the other geopolitical priorities of the White House."

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