The Obama Effect in Latin America

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama failed to discuss U.S. policy toward Latin America, apart from a passing reference to the Colombia and Panama free-trade deals, and also these seven words: “Our ties to the Americas are deeper.” Other than that, there was nothing. Nothing about the ferocious drug violence next door in Mexico and Central America. Nothing about the erosion of democracy in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Argentina. Nothing about Iran’s strategic alliance with Venezuela, or its growing regional footprint. Nothing about Alan Gross, the USAID contractor who has been sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison on bogus espionage charges.

Obama has consistently treated Latin America as an afterthought, so this was not exactly a huge surprise. But let’s go back to those seven words: “Our ties to the Americas are deeper.” Is that really true?

During his 2008 campaign, Obama pulled no punches in attacking the Bush administration over Latin America: “Its policy in the Americas has been negligent toward our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the challenges that matter in peoples’ lives, and incapable of advancing our interests in the region.” Yet George W. Bush signed free-trade pacts with Chile, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Colombia, and Panama; created the anti-drug Mérida Initiative; and boosted development aid to Latin America through the innovative Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Unlike Bush -- and Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan -- Obama has not spearheaded a major regional initiative of his own. He eventually got Congress to approve the Colombia and Panama trade accords (though only after Republicans captured the House of Representatives), and he has turned a portion of the Mérida Initiative into the Central America Regional Security Initiative. But in each of those cases, Obama was either completing or expanding on a policy that originated under his predecessor.

Indeed, for all his criticism of the Bush record in Latin America, Obama has not significantly changed U.S. policy toward any of the region’s biggest democratic powers. He has maintained close security cooperation with Mexico, but that cooperation has been undermined by the outrageous Fast and Furious scandal. Bush had warm and/or productive personal relationships with several Latin American leaders, including Lula da Silva of Brazil, Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, Francisco Flores and Antonio Saca of El Salvador, and Alejandro Toledo of Peru. While Obama’s one trip to Latin America (he visited Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador last March) was relatively successful, our allies and partners are still waiting for him to announce a large-scale hemispheric initiative. Their frustration was summed up a year ago by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who told an audience at Brown University that the United States had taken a “passive” and “disengaged” approach to the Western Hemisphere.