Dexter Boniface

Obama and Latin America: A Review of Year One

In Inter-American Relations, United States Government on January 17, 2010 at 1:00 am

January 20th marks the one year anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration. He took office amid high expectations of change. Here I examine Obama’s foreign policy as it pertains to Latin America.

Obama’s Challenge. Obama inherited a dual challenge in Latin America. First, to overcome the negative legacy of President Bush’s divisive War on Terror and rebuild trust in the hemisphere. Second, to come to grips with a rapidly changing global and hemispheric landscape marked by the rise of Brazil, Russia, India, and especially China (the so-called BRIC countries). The regional landscape has also been dramatically transformed by the rise of left-wing governments including anti-American populists such as Hugo Chavez. These forces, along with the devastating financial crisis in the United States, contributed to a growing spirit of independence on the part of Latin America. Proclaimed one sympathetic observer, “Latin America Breaks Free.” Could Obama re-unite the Americas?

Obama the Candidate. During the campaign, Obama outlined his proposal for “A New Partnership for the Americas” which aimed to depart from Bush-era policies in a number of ways. First, at the global level, he would withdraw U.S. military forces from Iraq, close the U.S. detention facility in Guatanamo and engage critics of the United States such as Cuba, Iran and Venezuela with constructive diplomacy. At the regional level, Obama promised to reduce travel and other restrictions to Cuba (though he backed away from lifting the embargo), rationalize immigration policy, increase aid to impoverished countries, battle both the supply and demand side in the war on drugs in Mexico and Colombia, and partner with Brazil to develop green energy. He would also oppose the Colombia Free Trade deal and seek to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Obama’s proposals were received with both hope and skepticism by D.C.-based think tanks such as the Center for International Policy and the Council on Hemipsheric Affairs which saw the prospect of fairly modest changes.

Obama the President. In his first year in office Obama has indeed made modest advances in developing a “New Partnership” in the Americas. But much as the skeptics anticipated Obama has failed to fundamentally repair America’s strained relations with Latin America. To be sure, Obama has helped to improve the image of the United States around the world by placing a greater emphasis on multilateral cooperation and diplomacy. The Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago (where he received a handshake and some reading material from Chavez) was considered “a personal triumph” in terms of Obama’s public relations with Latin America (though the summit itself was largely a failure). And, as Andres Oppenheimer points out, Obama has followed through on a number of his pledges (most notably Cuba) even as Latin America remains (as it was under Bush) a low priority on his foriegn policy agenda.

The honeymoon did not last long. By year’s end, Obama was facing increased resistance from Latin American leaders who expressed  growing opposition to America’s military partnership with Colombia and disappointment with Obama’s handling of the democratic crisis in Honduras–both of which contributed to a minor rift between the U.S. and a critical ally Brazil. Many were also disappointed that Obama did not go further in reducing travel restrictions to Cuba. Time Magazine’s Tim Padgett reflected the attitude of many Latin Americans when he declared in a year-end summary that, “Obama’s Latin American Policy Looks Like Bush’s.”

My take: While disappointing in many respects, Obama’s Latin America Policy reflects the fundamental constraints the president faces in establishing a new partnership in the Americas. On the one hand, Obama’s domestic agenda–economic recovery, healthcare reform–has taken clear precedence in his first year in office while his foreign policy agenda has been dominated by two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. policy toward Latin America furthermore continues to be hampered by powerful domestic interest groups (the Cubans, of course, but also big agriculture) and needlessly obstructive checks and balances (Senator DeMint, I’m looking at you). On the other hand, Obama is largely powerless to combat the growing independence of Latin America which has been fueled by (among other things) impressive economic growth in Brazil, the increased  economic presence of China and Europe in the region, and the enduring appeal of anti-American populism.

That said, there is still room for maneuver–and substantial room for improvement–as Obama moves into his second year. On a positive note, the president begins his second year in office with his foreign policy team fully in place–after months of partisan delay, Arturo Valenzuela was finally confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in November. Obama’s proposal for a “New Partnership” still serves as a useful guide–immigration reform and improving bilateral relationships with key allies such as Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil should be top priorities in 2010. And, needless to say, the United States should do everything within its means to assist the earthquake-ravaged country of Haiti.

Further Reading

Jorge Castañeda, “Adios, Monroe Doctrine,”  The New Republic, December 28, 2009. See also the  rejoinder by Michael Shifter.

Grandin, Greg, “Muscling Latin America,” The Nation, January 21, 2010.

Peter Hakim, “The Obama Administration: A Difficult Year in Latin America,” El Universal (Mexico), January 7, 2010. A video interview with Peter Hakim is also available here.

Collin Laverty, “Why Latin America is Disappointed with Barack Obama,” Huffington Post, January 7, 2010.

Jim Lobe, “Inertia on US-Latin America Relations,” Havana Times, January 6, 2010.

Christopher Sabatini, “Obama’s Latin American Policy: Talking Like It’s 1999,” Huffington Post, April 7, 2010.

Christopher Sabatini and Jason Marczak, “Obama’s Tango:  Restoring U.S. Leadership in Latin America,” Foreign Affairs: Snapshots, January/February 2010. A video interview with Christopher Sabatini and Shannon O’Neil is also available here.

Michael Shifter, “Obama and Latin America: Year One,” El Colombiano, December 26, 2009.

Julia E. Sweig, “Obama’s Disappointing Year in Latin America,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 12, 2010.

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