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Obama on Latin America: Negligent, but Prudent (B-)

As the US presidential campaign intensifies, Latin America only arises in discussions on immigration and the drug war.  The region is politically important but serious foreign policy engagement is limited.

Pragmatic Neglect

In his first year as president, Obama succeeded in raising the popularity of the US leadership in Latin America by 16 percentage points to a favorability rating of 51%, merely for not being George Bush.

But, besides his popular image, Obama has done little to court Latin America leaders.  His foreign policy has focused on a difficult pivot to Asia, complicated by troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan and a series of pro-democracy uprisings throughout the Middle East. 

As such, Obama’s engagement in Latin America focuses on building cooperation on global issues   outside of the Western Hemisphere.  Besides bilateral trade agreements with Panama, Chile, and Colombia, Obama furthered the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that aims to establish a united front against China along the Pacific Rim.  TPP includes the nations of Peru, Chile, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam, and may come to incorporate Mexico and Canada. It is meant to deepen US trade relations with these countries, as an alternative to Chinese trade. But, rather than focusing on a multi-state agreement with Latin American countries, Obama has prioritized an initiative that looks past the region to other horizons.

Obama waited three years into his term before touring Latin America on a diplomatic mission, intentionally bypassing countries aligned with Venezuela’s Chavez. Meanwhile, the position of US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs was vacant for nearly eight months during 2011 and 2012.

While Obama has been distracted by domestic concerns and other foreign policy issues, rivals China and Iran have made Latin America a priority and capitalized on the opportunity to engage the region’s left-leaning leaders. Twenty years ago, consensus on economic and diplomatic issues in the region reflected the ideas of US politicians and intellectuals.  Now, Latin America has created its own consensus.  From the Union of South American States (UNASUR) to the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the region has established a series of cooperative organizations which exclude the United States. 

The failure of the 2012 Summit of the Americas last April highlighted the lack of US support among leaders in the hemisphere and the diminishing leverage of the Organization of American States (OAS), which hosted the conference. By denying Cuba’s participation, despite majority support for the communist nation’s inclusion in the conference, the US showed it would continue to exert its control over the tone of debate.  The action stunted the conference and several disappointed leaders expressed that it would be the last.

So What?

Despite ignoring Latin America during his first term, Obama has not done the region a disservice.  He has allowed it to mature on its own, free from US foreign policy ambition.  Organizations like CELAC and UNASUR, which fill the vacuum of cooperative efforts normally led by the US, empower the region.  CELAC recently engaged in meetings with India and China and the trio prepares to face the world together, as the rising global powers of the 21st century.

With USAID stretched thin, Latin America and especially Brazil have become quite active in the realm of South-South development.  Brazil has used its Zero Hunger campaign as a model to alleviate starvation in Africa.  Additionally, in 2010, Brazil took an active role in maintaining peace following the Haitian earthquake.  Brazil’s ascension as a regional leader and global power should delight – rather than frighten – US officials.  It is in US interest to have a friendly and democratic nation spreading similar values in parts of the world, such as Africa, which appears to be in the grips of Chinese influence.  This allows the US to prioritize the Pacific, rather than getting lost in proxy competition and overleveraging its resources. By giving Latin America space to grow on its own, the US also avoids the antagonism for which it has sometimes been known. 

Still, continued US disengagement from Latin America could bypass valuable opportunities. The gradual re-integration of Cuba in the global economy is one example.  Re-engaging with recent adversaries like Venezuela and Ecuador is another, and Obama has a unique opportunity with Hugo Chavez saying recently, “deep down [Obama] is a good guy, if you remove him from the context of being president of an empire.” 

We give the Obama Administration a B- for its Latin America policy in 2008-2012. On one hand, the US allowed the region room to breathe and flourish. On the other hand, America’s disengagement bordered on neglect. As Latin America’s economic and diplomatic power continue to grow, efforts to control the region will become increasingly futile. America must continue to strengthen ties and bridge the divide among opponents aligned with Chavez in order to cultivate the region’s support. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.