When Obama took office last January, he inherited a neglected and outdated relationship with Latin America. While he initially expressed intentions to focus on the region, former President Bush focus was quickly turned towards another important region and global terrorist threat. Latin America relations then stalled. The neighboring region began to look for economic and political relationships with other world powers including Russia, China and the European Union.
The little North American influence that Latin America saw--support for an attempted coup in Bolivia and various controversial free trade agreements--fueled the flames of anti-Americanism in the region.
As Obama's administration took charge, there was a mutual hope for a closer, more modern relationship, one that left behind the Cold War framework. During his campaign, candidate Obama expressed his interest in lifting the embargo on Cuba, a constant sticking point in relations across the region. He wanted to recognize Latin America as "a mutual partner, not as a junior partner" in facing terrorism and building a strong global economy. Obama directly admitted that the region had been ignored during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A hopeful start
1) At the start, things were looking up. General support for the United States among Latin America, from 39% in 2008 to 51% in 2009 (see Gallup Poll from Dec. 1) . In El Salvador, where the support for the new American president was highest, 84% of Salvadoreans had a positive image of President Obama.
2) At the Summit of the Americas in April, Obama appeared to be, as The Nation called him, "a good student" learning about the current Latin situation. He accepted a book from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, took notes during a speech by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and concluded that many countries don't like the "rigid application of a free market doctrine" by Washington.
3) Beyond mere words and poll results, Obama did take some positive action. He took a posture of friendship towards the leader of Latin American anti-Americanism--President Chavez. As for Cuba, the Obama administration immediately lifted the ban on travel for Cubans and allowed for money to be sent and received between Cuba and the United States. He voted for Cuba to be included again in the Organization of American States. He also ordered his State Department team to start working on free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia.
But only a year into his term, Obama has also taken some wrong turns in the path to better relations with the Western hemisphere.
1) Mexico, the United States' next-door neighbor, finds itself in a violent and costly internal conflict with powerful drug traffickers. But Obama visited Canada first in February, then, finally in April, made a quick stopover in Mexico before the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Especially because the United States is largely responsible for the drug consumption that fuels Mexico's cartels, Mexico should feel like a mutual partner encountering a problem that affects both countries. Instead, this diplomatic move and a lack of other support for Mexico's war on the drug cartels doesn't bode well for the Obama administration so far.
2) Actually, the U.S. war on drugs has cost $7 billion. Colombia's cocaine production has doubled since 1996. The U.S.-led effort has been called a "complete failure" by various former presidents in the region. Yet, instead of reevaluating the drug strategy, Obama has instead invested more money and military resources in the Colombian conflict.
3) On top of that, the Obama administration failed to effectively communicate to South American leaders when it decided to use Colombian military bases for activities not related to the drug war. The move broadly renewed Cold War fears of American military intervention, and gave more ammunition for Chavist anti-Americanism.
4) But the misstep that will most affect relations with Latin American is recognizing the legitimacy of the Honduras elections in November, instead of ensuring the reinstatement of sacked Honduran President Manuel Zelaya (see TIME Magazine article). While Secretary Clinton was sent to negotiate a power-sharing agreement, hurried efforts left a loop-hole through which the Honduran Congress didn't have to reinstate Zelaya for the few months left in his term.
Then, Obama was forced to choose between angering the majority of Latin American leaders and elites who opposed any solution other than Zelaya's return to the presidency, or angering a few U.S. Senate conservatives who promised to block his State Department nominations until the Honduran elections were recognized. Unsurprisingly, international relations came in second to domestic political pressures.
The decision could have regional consequences; first, it gave cover for Panama to also support the elections, which has created discord among the Central American countries. The failed U.S.-led negotiations--and the United States' subsequent unilateral position in support for Honduras' elections--left a bad taste in Latin America's mouth. Latin American leaders wonder if unilateral decision-making and support for undemocratic regime change is the precedent for a new administration's relations:
Why is Latin America important?
As The Nation puts it succinctly:
Except for civil war in Colombia and drug violence in Mexico, Latin America is at peace; nuclear weapons are not a concern; most countries are led by democratically elected presidents committed to a progressive hemispheric agenda that would downplay terrorism and put top priority on alleviating poverty, inequality, crime and environmental problems.The United States has the opportunity to create a regional partner to defend it's mutual interests. Of course, not everyone agrees that Latin America is just a good opportunity. Some experts think Venezuela and Brazil's welcoming relationships with Iranian president Ahmadinejad means Obama should not be so naive as to think that all Latin American countries are friendlies.
Ideas for 2010
Here's a few ideas for the Obama administration to solidify this important partnership:
1) A new and effective U.S.-led regional anti-drug strategy would be a good start, including clear public support for Mexico's drug war and clear communication with South America on U.S. intentions in Colombia.
2) His administration also needs to assure that, as it pursues economic agreements with more Latin countries, the negative social consequences of free trade be minimized by strict provisions protecting labor and the environment.
3) Diplomatic missions to various Latin American countries by Secretary of State Clinton would put action behind the rhetoric.
But while the U.S. has been focused on other issues, Latin America has increased economic and political relations with Asia, the Middle East and the European Union. China, for example, just signed a free trade agreement with Peru.
More that diplomatic gestures, the Obama administration needs to be offering a unequivocally more attractive political and economic relationship than China or the EU is offering if it wants the United States to maintain its dominant influence in the Western hemisphere.