Barack Obama entered the presidency with the most daunting agenda that any U.S. government has faced in many decades: deep and worsening economic recession, a near-collapse of the country’s financial institutions and countless other accumulated problems at home, two wars, dangerous confrontations with North Korea and Iran, strained relations with Russia, incipient implosion in Pakistan, the festering Israel-Palestine impasse, and more besides. In these trying circumstances, few observers predicted that the Obama Administration would devote much attention to Latin America and the Caribbean. None of the region’s countries, not even Venezuela, pose an imminent threat to U.S. national security or anything remotely comparable to the security concerns represented by Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan or North Korea. None seem likely to be a major source or target of significant international terrorism.
During the campaign, moreover, Senator Obama said little about Latin America. He confined himself to one dedicated speech on the region (to a Cuban-American organization in Miami), a proposal to appoint a special Ambassador for Latin America, and suggestions during the “Rust Belt” primary campaigns that the North American Free Trade Agreement needed to be renegotiated. He also made a few vague statements suggesting that he would withhold support from the negotiated Colombia and Panama free trade agreements pending ratification in the U.S. Senate.
In fact, however, during its first months in office the Obama Administration took a very active interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. As President-elect, Mr. Obama met with only one foreign leader: Felipe Calderón of Mexico. His first foreign visitor to Camp David was Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva. Within his first six months in office, the President welcomed Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe to Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first meeting with a foreign head of state was with Haiti’s Prime Minister René Préval, and the U.S. government soon pushed successfully for expanded international assistance to that beleaguered country. Vice President Joseph Biden visited both Chile and Costa Rica in March. Secretary Clinton, Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano all went to Mexico during the first three months of the new Administration, ahead of a trip to Mexico by President Obama himself. All were notably receptive to Mexican perspectives.
The new Administration also announced initiatives on Cuba early in April, removing previous restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans, and opening up the possibility of investment in improving communications with the island. The President himself called for a “new beginning” in U.S.-Cuba relations; the State Department followed up with exploratory conversations with Cuban officials and subsequently announced the resumption of long-suspended consultations on migration issues. No concrete actions have yet emerged on approving the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, but Administration officials have carefully backed away from the earlier negative posture. President Obama’s most visible action has been his effective participation in mid-April at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, where he won praise throughout Latin America and the Caribbean for his adroit role. Less visible, but possibly of greater consequence, was the Administration’s handling of the political hot potato caused by the forcible overthrow and deportation of the elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya.
Why did the new Administration take such a strong initial interest in Latin America and the Caribbean? What are the sources of its new approaches, and will these new approaches take fuller shape, be implemented and endure? Or will they fall victim to the law that the urgent pushes out the important, leaving things, if not back where they started, then nowhere in particular?
Why Latin America Matters
Apart from the fact that the Fifth Summit of the Americas was inherited on the presidential calendar, the main reason for the Obama Administration’s early engagement with Latin America was the new team’s perception that, although the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean pose no urgent issues for the United States, some of them, especially Mexico, are likely to be increasingly important to America’s future. This perception was driven home early and forcefully by Mexico’s deepening crisis of governance and violence, marked by a surge in homicides and violent confrontations between the Mexican government and the narcotics cartels. During the final months of 2008, these events increasingly drew the attention of U.S. policymakers, the media and an attentive, alarmed public. Various former U.S. officials began talking, albeit loosely, about the possibility that Mexico would become a “failed state”, with dire consequences for the United States. A Pentagon report suggested that worst-case scenarios in the medium term were most likely in Pakistan and Mexico.1 The new Administration thus found itself facing a choice even before taking office: Plan emergency efforts to quarantine the United States from troubles in Mexico, or devise a more effective partnership with Mexico in order to help deal with that country’s problems and their implications for the United States.
Concern about Mexico also seems to have concentrated minds in Washington in a more broadly helpful way. Inherited but largely obsolete wisdom about Latin America holds that the southern hemisphere matters to the United States because of extra-hemispheric threats and the need for pan-American solidarity in confronting them. However, four much more contemporary reasons for Latin America’s importance take pride of place.
First, the borders between the United States and its southern neighbors have blurred mainly because of massive and sustained migration and growing economic integration. This demographic and economic interdependence has given rise to complex issues with both international and domestic facets—so-called “intermestic” questions—ranging from bilingual education to health care, immigrants’ remittances, driver’s licenses, youth gangs, portable retirement pensions, narcotics, and human and arms trafficking. The Obama Administration knows that it cannot ignore these issues; the media frenzy about Mexico’s troubles underlines their high priority for the U.S. public.
Second, Latin America matters as a prime source of energy and other key resources, and as a major market for U.S. goods and services. The United States obtains nearly half of its energy imports from the countries of the Western Hemisphere, with more than half of that, in turn, from Latin American and Caribbean suppliers. There is great potential for expanded energy production in the Americas, from both renewable and non-renewable sources. U.S. firms exported goods and services to Latin America valued at $273 billion in 2008, which amounts to 20 percent of all U.S. exports and four times the value of U.S. exports to China. U.S. firms still have a competitive advantage in Latin American markets, which arises from proximity and familiarity plus cultural and demographic ties. The imperative to sustain it is all the more urgent in a period of economic downturn.
Third, Latin America is perceived in Washington as increasingly significant for confronting transnational issues such as energy security, global warming, pollution and other environmental concerns, crime, narcotics, and public health. The new Administration recognizes that these issues cannot be solved or even managed effectively without close and sustained cooperation from the many countries of the Americas.
Fourth, the United States shares important values with its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, especially the commitment to fundamental human rights, including free political expression, effective democratic governance and consistent application of the rule of law. Latin American countries face their own challenges in all these areas, to be sure, but at a time when the very difficult experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have discouraged many Americans about the prospects of expanding the international influence of U.S. ideals, the growing commitment throughout Latin America to the norms of democratic governance and the rule of law is encouraging. The Western Hemisphere remains a largely congenial neighborhood for the United States in an unattractive broader international environment.
Obama Administration officials understand that, despite Latin America’s growing day-to-day significance for the United States, U.S. policies toward the region in recent years have been ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. The Administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush emphasized showy Western Hemisphere summits as a means of demonstrating attention to Latin America, but these meetings typically produced little beyond photo opportunities and easy rhetoric. Both Administrations continued to talk about a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) long after this goal had become unachievable. After the September 11 attacks, Washington mainly viewed Latin America through the prism of international terrorism, mirroring a similar tendency during the Cold War to focus on anti-Communism in the Americas rather than on the issues Latin Americans themselves considered most important. Instead of building better bridges toward its closest neighbors, the United States began constructing a fence at the border with Mexico in 2006.
Whereas cooperation between the United States and the Western Hemisphere had been strengthening in the post-Cold War years of the early 1990s, it waned in the late 1990s and in the first years of the new century. Many Latin Americans resented Washington’s perceived inattentiveness to their countries and rejected some of its global policies during the Bush years, especially the invasion of Iraq. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela took advantage of this antipathy with his aggressive public and “checkbook” diplomacy, which combined flamboyant anti-U.S. rhetoric with generous offers of economic support to Latin America: subsidized petroleum sales to Central American and Caribbean nations; other economic assistance to receptive neighbors; close cooperation with Cuba to furnish medical and other social services; and promises to finance major energy infrastructure projects in South America.
Meanwhile, many Latin American and Caribbean countries have been deepening processes of sub-regional integration, in part through formal institutions, but even more through trade, investment, Latin America-based multinational corporations, professional and business networks and pragmatic cooperation. These countries, notably Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia, have also been diversifying their international relationships beyond the Americas, building ties with the countries of the European Union, members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and especially with China, India, Iran and Russia. Many Latin American countries no longer look to Washington for leadership or even for close cooperation.
Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS) has often been ineffectual, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter has not produced many meaningful results. Other hemisphere-wide institutions, including the Inter-American Development Bank, have weakened. As the self-confidence and international activity of Latin American nations have grown, Western Hemisphere approaches to problem solving have waned. And as extra-hemispheric actors have become more active and visible in Latin America, U.S. influence has been declining. This was the state of inter-American relations that Barack Obama inherited on taking office.
Armed with a mandate for change, the Obama Administration has not hesitated to shake up Latin America policy. It posited that the emergence of a number of shared concerns in the Americas, heightened by the severe international economic crisis, could make inter-American approaches more attractive in much of the Hemisphere once again. It believed that clear signals of a strong U.S. interest in renewing cooperation might therefore yield immediate dividends. These premises undergird the various steps in Latin America policy that the new Administration announced during its opening months. These steps, in turn, have been guided by three principles.
First, the Administration seeks to gain the confidence of the U.S. public and of the international community as a whole in its ability to slow and then reverse the deterioration of the U.S. economy. How well it succeeds at this will be highly relevant in Latin America, especially to those countries in the northern tier that are so dependent on U.S. investment, remittances, tourism and trade. By the same token, these closest neighbors are themselves germane to the new Administration’s economic initiatives, for they provide substantial markets for U.S. goods and services. Latin America’s capacity to respond effectively to the current economic downturn will thus affect the chances for a solid U.S. recovery. Stabilizing and shoring up the economies of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean is particularly important, both because of their commercial significance and because social and economic trends in these close neighbors directly affect the United States through migration, the narcotics trade, crime and violence.
Second, instead of offering soaring rhetoric about partnership from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, the new Administration prefers to work with Latin American and Caribbean governments on a few select issues that can be addressed soon, if only partially, such as bolstering financial institutions, restoring credit and investment flows, and tackling issues related to energy, the environment and citizen security. The Administration aims to rebuild U.S. credibility without generating new, unfulfillable expectations. Instead of scrambling to counter Chávez and the “Bolivarian alternative” of anti-U.S. movements, the Administration wants to confront the underlying issues that have created space for Chávez and other radical populist movements in the Americas in the first place.
Third, the new U.S. authorities know that they must rigorously disaggregate Latin America and the Caribbean. During the past twenty years, there has often been a bipartisan tendency in Washington to emphasize convergence within the region toward democratic governance, market-oriented economics, macroeconomic balance and regional integration. Although some of these convergent trends have indeed been important (albeit sometimes exaggerated), key differences persist among the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, and some of these differences are growing. The most important differences lie primarily along five dimensions:
- the level of demographic and economic interdependence with the United States;
the degree and nature of economic openness to international competition;
the extent of progress toward such key aspects of effective democratic governance as checks and balances, accountability and the rule of law;
the relative strength of civil and political institutions beyond the state, such as nongovernmental entities, the press, religious organizations and trade unions;
the extent to which they incorporate many traditionally excluded populations, including more than thirty million marginalized, disadvantaged and increasingly politically mobilized indigenous people, as well as Afro-Latin Americans and migrant workers, all of whom still face severe discrimination in several countries.
U.S. officials understand that only when they take into account all these important structural differences and their political consequences can Latin America and the Caribbean come into clear policy focus. Hemisphere-wide summits and broad regional initiatives are much less likely to be effective than efforts that bring together smaller clusters of countries with comparable or complementary issues and concerns. Recognizing this fundamental reality, the Administration is less inclined toward pan-American gatherings and more focused on smaller working groups of variable composition that can confront and overcome specific challenges.
Within the first hundred days, the Obama Administration began to put the aforementioned three guiding principles into practice. In doing so, it began to reshape several important mindsets. The first is a change of focus from the so-called war on terrorism to broadly shared, hemisphere-wide challenges involving economic growth, jobs, equity, citizens’ security, energy, migration, health, democratic governance and the rule of law. The second is another shift from a so-called war—the “war on drugs”—toward reducing demand and mitigating harm. This attempt must start, and has, with an honest acknowledgment of the role the United States itself has played in fueling and facilitating the drug trade and the associated traffic in small arms and bulk cash. The third is recognition that some of the key issues affecting U.S.-Latin American relations—particularly immigration, narcotics, small arms trafficking, trade, and energy conservation and development—require domestic U.S. initiatives more than they do action by Latin American and Caribbean states. The fourth is an explicit understanding that Latin America’s realities today do not call for smaller governments, but for more efficient governments that concentrate on citizens’ security, education, infrastructure and other public goods that are not adequately provided by market forces. The fifth is a targeted emphasis on the special challenges posed by relations with the closest neighbors of the United States in Mexico and the Caribbean Basin, on the prospects for strategic cooperation with Brazil regarding key issues in the Hemisphere and beyond, on patient, nuanced and case-by-case management of relations with the diverse nations of the Andean ridge, and on a new approach to Cuba that turns away from denial, embargo and exclusion toward restoring communications, building trust and cooperating on specific issues.
On each of these five fronts, the Obama Administration began quickly, with positive initiatives and effective public diplomacy. Why did this happen? The new President himself was unfamiliar with Latin America, a region he had never visited before taking office. His inner circle of foreign policy advisers lacks anyone known for major prior interest in or experience with Latin America. So what explains this unexpected emphasis?
First, although the Obama Administration has done a stunning job of presenting its approach to Latin America as fresh and innovative, many of its elements actually represent a continuation of significant changes in U.S. policy quietly introduced by his predecessor. These changes were largely the work of Thomas Shannon, a career diplomat who became Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs in October 2005, and who remained in that office late into 2009 until being confirmed as the new U.S. Ambassador to Brazil. This is especially true of the carefully nuanced case-by-case treatment of the various populist and potentially populist regimes: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, as well as Paraguay, Honduras and El Salvador. Shannon’s concepts, rhetoric and actions—in contrast to those proffered under his political-appointee predecessors in the first Bush Administration—consistently emphasized disaggregation, recognition of social and economic inequities as the root cause of many of the region’s problems, special and deferential attention to Brazil, and a clear preference for multilateral approaches. When the history of this period is written, Shannon’s positive influence should receive the approbation largely denied him outside the bureaucracy in the partisan atmosphere of that time.
Second, the Obama Administration’s initial steps toward Latin America and the Caribbean also reflect a high degree of consensus among non-governmental experts, evident in several reports on U.S.-Latin American relations published in the past three years. From the left-wing Washington Office on Latin America to the right-leaning Heritage Foundation to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution and the Inter-American Dialogue, a broad range of organizations issued reports on U.S.-Latin American relations that, apart from minor differences of emphasis, offered similar analyses. Most recommended the same policy objectives, too, many of which paralleled the views of career officials within the U.S. government, civilian and military. The influence of these reports no doubt was reinforced by their evident compatibility with other contemporaneous studies on different foreign policy issues ranging from climate change to immigration, narcotics, human rights, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Many of these reports likewise recommended more multilateral policies, greater respect for international law, institutions and opinion, and fresh approaches that departed from the neoconservative ideology and rhetoric of the prior Administration.
The proximate cause for the Obama Administration’s quick start in addressing U.S.-Latin American relations, however, was the need to deal with growing troubles in Mexico. Mexico’s crisis galvanized the new Administration’s attention in a way that no think tank report ever could have done.
But will it last? Other Administrations have made good starts under various labels—the “Alliance for Progress”, a “New Dialogue”, a “Mature Partnership”, a “Caribbean Basin Initiative”, or an “Enterprise for the Americas Initiative”, to name a few. Yet one new Administration after another, almost without exception, has backed away from its initial approach. There seems to be a pattern here: Incoming policymakers who are closely associated with a newly elected President push for fresh initiatives; political pressures lead to the over-dramatization of these new approaches; resistance arises from the career bureaucracy as well as interest and pressure groups; other issues soon dominate the time of senior officials, leading to uncertain, contradictory and ineffective implementation of announced new policies; and before one knows it, those announced new policies effectively go missing.
There is already some evidence to support the skeptics. Indications from the new Administration that it respects the right and indeed the responsibility of Latin American countries to diversify their international relationships, and that the United States is moving beyond hegemonic presumptions and policies, were soon apparently contradicted when Secretary of State Clinton stated that the increasing presence of China and Iran in the region was a source of concern. The President’s call for a new beginning in relations with Cuba was followed by suggestions from within the Administration that Cuba first needed to take steps of its own if relations were to improve, and by apparent initial resistance from the Obama Administration to the increasing sentiment within the Organization of American States to lift the OAS expulsion of Cuba, adopted in 1962.
That is not all. President Obama’s early promise that comprehensive immigration reform would be a first-year priority gave way to a more limited commitment only to begin consultations on the issue this year. After the Administration acknowledged the need to regulate, if not prohibit, the export of small weapons from the United States to Mexico, the President himself suggested that this goal was unrealistic because of domestic politics (a comment underlined by the President’s willingness to sign economic stimulus legislation despite a provision that made it legal to bring concealed weapons into U.S. national parks). None of these indications is necessarily definitive—the United States eventually supported the repeal of the 1962 OAS exclusion of Cuba, for example—but they all raise doubts about whether the Administration’s initial rhetoric will be consistently implemented in practice.
And the Administration’s approach to trade policy has been confusing, at best. It rejects protectionism but has accepted a “Buy American” provision in the economic stimulus legislation. It has emitted positive signals about its willingness to proceed with free trade agreements for Colombia and Panama but has postponed any action. It has talked up energy cooperation with Brazil but has preserved the subsidy for U.S. corn-based ethanol producers and a high tariff on imported ethanol. And it has promoted enhanced partnership with Mexico but allowed the experimental program for Mexican truckers entering the United States to lapse, leaving the United States in non-compliance with an important NAFTA provision. Each of these cases illustrates the continuing power of key interest groups and their access to the highly permeable process of U.S. foreign policymaking, particularly on “routine” issues that do not involve high-priority national security concerns.
It is too soon to say how the Obama Administration’s policies toward Latin America will develop. On each of the main issues and relationships—trade, immigration, energy, narcotics, border security, strategic partnership with Brazil, managed interdependence with Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, rapprochement with Cuba, and relations with the “Bolivarian” populist regimes—there are important conflicting interest and advocacy groups in the United States. There are also diverse participants within the Executive Branch and Congress, as well as among and within the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. How policies and relationships take shape will depend, as in the past, largely on the push and pull of these different actors in a series of overlapping and interlocking bargaining processes, within the United States and between the United States and the countries of Latin America.
The Obama Administration may be able to buck the trend and remain stalwart in implementing the coherent vision of inter-American relations it has set forth so far. Several factors are working in its favor. The new Administration has a relatively orderly, deliberative and non-confrontational decision-making process and style. The vision of the new senior policy team appears well-aligned with that of the career bureaucracy specializing in Latin American affairs. The Administration’s Latin American policy approaches fit well alongside both its domestic priorities and its broad international vision. The composition of the new Congress is helpful. And the President still possesses considerable personal prestige.
Another reason to think that the new Administration’s initiatives may endure is the weakening in the 2008 elections of several interest groups that oppose its approach: the hard-line sector of Florida’s Cuban-American community; some of the most protectionist segments of organized labor; the gun lobby; some specialized agricultural interests; and the fraction of the foreign policy establishment that has wanted to penalize some Latin American governments for their failure to align themselves with U.S. positions on international matters during the Bush years. By the same token, Hispanic/Latino voters beyond the Cuban-American community have been gaining in numbers and influence, and they generally support Obama’s proposed changes in immigration policy and relations with their countries of origin.
Because of all these tendencies, the Administration may have more room to maneuver on Latin American policy than other recent Presidents.2 A great deal will depend, of course, on whether the U.S. economy turns around. Prolonged economic downturn and loss of public confidence in the Administration’s competence to manage the economy would undermine its approaches to trade and immigration and give it less latitude to oppose interest groups on issues ranging from trade to border security, energy and narcotics.
As has been true in the past, U.S. policies toward Latin America are likely to be shaped in great measure by evolving domestic concerns and by broader international pressures. That is the nature of U.S. policy affecting Latin America no matter who occupies the White House, for Latin America is often affected by the residual impact of decisions taken for other reasons.
This time, however, an Administration that appears to understand Latin America’s ongoing significance for the United States, and that consequently may strengthen an incipient strategic vision for the Americas, might be able to fend off pressures that would otherwise undermine its initial project for renewing inter-American partnerships. That outcome is by no means certain, but it at least seems possible. Whether this happens will depend in important measure on how Latin American governments respond to the most promising opportunity for Hemispheric cooperation in many years.
1See United States Joint Forces Command, Joint Operating Environment 2008 (November 2008), especially p. 36.
2That room to maneuver was evident, for example, in the response to the Honduran military’s forced removal and deportation of President Manuel Zelaya. The U.S. government condemned the intervention, supported Latin American initiatives within and outside the Organization of American States, maintained a principled stand despite partisan claims that it was being soft on an alleged Chávez acolyte, and waited for Latin American sentiment to crystallize around asking Washington to become more directly involved in seeking a political compromise.