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.


When and where he has engaged, Obama’s efforts have often proved unsuccessful. Take his bid to repair damaged relations with Ecuador and Cuba. His attempted rapprochement with Quito was effectively scuttled last April, when President Rafael Correa expelled U.S. ambassador Heather Hodges after learning that she had criticized Ecuadorean corruption in secret diplomatic cables (publicized by WikiLeaks). As for Cuba, Obama’s decision to relax U.S. sanctions against the Communist island was greeted with a fresh government crackdown on dissent and the imprisonment of Gross, who has been languishing in a Cuban jail since December 2009.

Ecuador and Cuba are both members of the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), as are Bolivia and Nicaragua. All of these countries are currently governed by autocratic or semi-authoritarian regimes that have pursued a stridently anti-U.S. foreign policy. Back when he was a presidential candidate, Obama blasted Bush for his “ineffective” approach to the ALBA nations. But over the past three years, he has been equally ineffective, if not more so.

True, Bolivia and the United States recently restored diplomatic relations, but President Evo Morales is still refusing to let the Drug Enforcement Administration return to his country, calling it a matter of “dignity and sovereignty.” In Nicaragua, Sandinista boss Daniel Ortega continues to rig elections, trample the constitution, build a new dictatorship, and cultivate warm ties with Iran. (Mobs of his supporters frequently harassed former U.S. ambassador Robert Callahan, who served in Managua from 2008 to 2011.) In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez continues to entrench his petro-dictatorship, provide crucial economic assistance to Iran, and fund radical groups beyond his borders. Argentina is not a formal member of ALBA, but President Cristina Kirchner has adopted Chávez-style economic policies, curbed press freedom, and shown a great deal of antagonism toward the United States. (Her foreign minister has denounced the United States for operating torture schools, and last year Buenos Aires sparked a full-blown diplomatic row when it seized a U.S. military plane participating in a police-training course.)


As Eric Farnsworth writes in Americas Quarterly, “Nations such as Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela do not particularly want to have a partnership with the U.S. at this juncture.” That was also true during the Bush years. Obama has learned the hard way that personal diplomacy and unilateral concessions will not turn hostile autocrats into friendly democrats. He has spent too much time trying to placate U.S. adversaries and too little time strengthening partnerships with U.S. allies. No wonder Latin American democrats are so disappointed.

(Read this article in Spanish here.) 


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