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Emerging Markets

It’s the regional policy, stupid

US foreign policy for Latin America appears unable to escape from domestic politicking in Washington

US president Barack Obama came to power promising, among other things, a new approach to Latin America. That commitment was made clear at a regional summit in Trinidad & Tobago in April to universal applause – and even a hug from Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, long-time opponent of Obama’s predecessor.

The goodwill continues, but there is also an increasing perception that Obama may not bring about the rapid shift expected by many.

“There may have been the impression in the Obama administration that by being more respectful they would be able to have a different relationship with Latin America, but they’ve quickly found out that it is more complicated,” says Jorge Castaneda, former Mexico foreign minister and political commentator. “Smiles and the high fives are good, but they are not a substitute for policy.”

There are several issues, both at home and in the region, that have delayed the new government’s revamping of relations with Latin America.

On the home front, there is the slow speed of US bureaucracy and partisan battles in Congress. The US Senate has delayed confirmation of Arturo Valenzuela as under-secretary for the region. The appointments of key ambassadors are also on hold.

“Valenzuela’s position is critical to get others engaged and to move ahead on a new policy. This has been clearly a problem and it is worrying that the Senate has not moved on this,” says Michael Shifter, vice-president for policy and director of the Andean programme at the Inter-American Dialogue.


Even more problematic is the fact that the changes Obama put forth at the regional summit are also contentious issues in the US. Obama, for example, has promised a new approach on Cuba, but has been careful not to ostracize voters in Florida, a state he won in 2008 and that is highly sensitive to the Cuba issue.

The US administration backed an Organization of American States motion on Cuba that, in the end, was more style than substance. Obama re-approved the economic blockage of Cuba in mid-September.

Cuba, for all its baggage, is probably the least complicated among the thorny issues – drugs, energy policy and immigration, to name the most obvious – being examined by the administration.

“Domestic politics is making it very difficult to overcome some of the real barriers to having fully productive relations with the region,” says Shifter. “The instincts are right and the tone positive, but carrying them out is proving to be difficult.”

Tensions in the region, between and within countries, are not helping. Castaneda says that he does not remember “a time when there were so many on-going conflicts between countries and within countries”.

The most obvious involve Colombia and its neighbours, and Honduras, where its president, Manuel Zelaya, was deposed just a few months before finishing his term in office.

The Obama administration has taken flak from all sides in the Honduras. Shifter says the plan was to find a solution by working with the different sides. “But by trying to accommodate different factions the administration risks alienating everyone,” he says.


Relations with Colombia are tricky, because it has been increasingly difficult to keep them within a bilateral context. Any dealings with Colombia inevitably provoke the ire of neighbouring Venezuela. Venezuela’s Chavez has led a crusade against a US plan to use military bases in Colombia, saying the goal is not targeting drug traffickers but himself.

Conservatives in the US and Latin America criticize the Obama administration for not taking a stand against Chavez on the issue. They also chastise him for not moving forward on a free-trade agreement negotiated with Colombia, which has been stuck in Congress for two years. (There is also a free-trade agreement pending with Panama.)

David Dreier, a US Republican congressman, says failure to move on the free-trade agreement with Colombia is a bad sign. “The administration talks about the strong ally it has in the Colombian government, but then refuses to move on the trade issue, which is undoubtedly one of most important components of our bilateral relationship,” he says.

Castaneda says that while free-trade agreements are important and the passage of the Colombian and Panamanian agreements would send a positive signal, trade should be seen as only one element of the picture.

“The real policy issue is economic growth. What we need to see is if the administration makes economic development in Latin America a real issue and not one just based on slogans,” he says. —L.C.

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