¿Cambio? The Obama Administration in Latin America: A Disappointing Year in Retrospective

In a memorandum written as Barack Obama assumed office in January 2009, COHA’s Research Fellows Guy Hursthouse and Tomás Ayuso considered the widespread Latin American expectations of a dramatic shift in approach from Washington under the new president, and outlined an agenda for change. This scenario was aimed at achieving this vision as the result of charting a bold new direction for U.S. relations with the region. A year later, the two COHA researchers offer their evaluation of developments to date and conclude that a clear and meaningful program of change has failed to materialize under Obama, his Secretary of State and the leadership team to which he has looked for drafting his regional agendas. At best, their fractured approach to Latin American issues has delivered mixed results. Looking ahead, the authors ask, now that the backing Obama enjoyed appears to be declining, can we expect the president’s second year in office to deliver that coherent mixture of realism and idealism in Latin American policy which up to now has proved elusive?

Barack Obama assumed the presidency twelve months ago amidst “strained hemispheric relations.” Productive cooperation on a variety of shared regional concerns had been all but ignored by a Bush administration completely distracted by the Iraqi War, and in favor of an approach characterized by confrontation, diplomatic bullying, and the continued pursuit of policies detrimental to the abiding interests of both Latin America and the United States. Apparently recognizing this, Obama brought with him a promise to begin a “new chapter in the story of the Americas,” in which the U.S. leader would follow an inclusive and relevant approach to regional diplomacy, coupled with a pledge to begin matching rhetoric with deeds.

Writing as Obama took up office, COHA called on the new administration to make good on these proposed foundations of its policy and strive to implement a program of change which would not only reverse eight years of failed initiatives under Bush, but also manage to address a series of new political and economic tasks that would have a positive impact on the hemisphere. However, as the presidential campaign wore on, Obama’s own position on a number of key issues became disturbingly contradictory. He recognized “nearly 50 years of failure” on Cuba, while pledging to continue “holding back … relaxation of the trade embargo” until certain preconditions were met. He supported the continued provision of U.S. military aid to Bogotá under Plan Colombia despite its own largely failed militarization of the War on Drugs, while ostensibly refusing to back Bush’s free trade agreement with Colombia because of the violent effects of that militarization in terms of the systematic murder of that country’s labor leaders. He also called for diplomatic engagement with Venezuela, only to sharply criticize its president, Hugo Chávez, for “[interrupting] progress in the region.”

Voicing additional concern with Obama’s appointment of a host of Bush and Clinton-era officials to key administration posts, COHA expressed doubt that the president’s desire to bring change would match the region’s large hopes for a break from past Cold War-inspired policies. Twelve months later, placing the unforeseen headache of the Honduran coup alongside the list of policy matters that were isolated for analysis last year, and with the setbacks in the tempo and strategy of U.S relief efforts following the devastating earthquake which struck Haiti, the authors will assess whether their original predictions were accurate, or whether Obama has in fact made progress in delivering on his “new chapter.”

The Honduran Crisis: Obama’s New Multilateralism Tested

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power by the country’s armed forces by order of the Honduran Supreme Court on June 28, 2009, in what Roberto Micheletti, who, as acting President of the National Congress temporarily assumed the presidency, claimed was a move designed to preserve the country’s democracy. The symptoms of Zelaya’s approaching ejection could be noticed for months, as the Honduran president clashed repeatedly with the other branches of government over his alleged illegal ambitions. This scuffling went unperceived by the Obama Administration and other foreign actors, even though just three weeks prior to the culmination of the country’s institutional volatility, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in San Pedro Sula for a previously scheduled OAS meeting.

Obama joined the rest of the world in condemning Zelaya’s ousting as an illegal coup, but the administration’s line on Honduras since then has been rather muddied. No amount of semantic athleticism will change the fact that what removed Zelaya from office was an illegal coup, and that Zelaya would remain the democratically-elected leader of Honduras until his term ended on January 27, 2010. However, instead of breaking off all ties with Honduras, like Venezuela and Argentina did, or blocking trade with Tegucigalpa in the manner of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the U.S. allowed itself to be flexible in its approach by viewing the coup as a more elaborated event than simply a single flashpoint.

While countries usually critical of U.S. interventionism urged that more pressure from Washington be applied, Obama was eager to avoid parallels with deeply unpopular past misadventures on Washington’s behalf, especially since a few months prior to the coup the U.S. leader had declared that the era of U.S. unilateralism in Latin America was over. Perhaps hoping for the crisis to work itself out without any U.S. intrusion, Washington looked towards the highly pliable and usually accommodating Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to mediate and find a Central American solution to a Central American problem. However, the already dubious San Jose Accord, which had been drafted by Arias and sought to reinstate a powerless version of Zelaya and end the crisis in a peaceful manner, was flatly rejected as unacceptable by both Zelaya and Micheletti. Consequently, the U.S., the only country with any real leverage over Honduras, began to episodically freeze aid and suspend visas held by members of Micheletti’s cabinet, while continuing to maintain its insistence on the reinstatement of Zelaya, until the deposed president surreptitiously reentered the country in September, and holed himself up in the Brazilian embassy, perhaps happy to call Washington’s bluff. At this point Washington could not be described as a zealot in the hapless Honduran’s cause.

The impasse caused by the obstinate personalities of Zelaya and Micheletti, a Janus-minded OAS, and an unfocused Secretary of State Clinton who found it easier to engage in subterfuge then principle, dragged on until a few weeks before the November 29 elections, when the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon was sent to the country to broker an agreement. Nary a day after landing in Tegucigalpa, it was ultimately a diplomat from Washington and not San Jose or Brasilia who at least gave the appearance of managing to force a deal out of Micheletti. The oncoming highly controversial elections – boycotted by the normal contingent of official observers, but declared by the U.S. to be fair and transparent – resulted in Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s election. The Obama administration’s ambivalence towards Micheletti and his coup regime, and its automatic recognition of the elections, has caused many to see Obama as an echo of past imperial presidencies. However, not all the blame can be placed on the U.S.; Arias, Shannon and OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza all aired their concern during the crisis about a lack of political will to move forward.

Micheletti’s defiant comments even against the U.S. and Costa Rica, as well as against Venezuela, made it easy to see who was culpable in that respect. Micheletti’s obstinance and caudillo-style leadership were hardly conducive to any productive diplomacy or conciliation toward Zelaya; indeed, he ultimately reneged on even the agreement he signed with Shannon.

It is apparent that few outside of Honduras accurately saw the coup coming, and this is certainly true of the Obama Administration. Nevertheless, its handling of that crisis was – at least initially – somewhat more considered than could be expected from other recent U.S. governments. However, Obama’s supposed announced embrace of a policy of partnership and cooperation in Latin America hit a bottleneck with the crisis brought about by his wavering over Honduras; he will need to work much harder over time to convince the region of his dedication to this policy, and to demonstrate that he possesses the principles and the wisdom to use them.

Colombia: More of the Same Prevails in Trade and Defense Policy

The other significant development in U.S.-Latin American relations during 2009 merely increased regional suspicion of the new administration in Washington. Dictated within the framework of the War on Terror, Washington’s approach to Colombia under President Bush was primitive: prioritize affording Bogotá the military assistance deemed necessary to fight the guerrilla insurgency and the problems related to narcotics production, and couple this with the pursuit of a free trade agreement. In theory this would lead to the bolstering of a strategic geopolitical foothold for the U.S. in an otherwise inhospitable South America. Despite bringing a more tolerant and euphoric rhetoric and attitude to the White House, Obama, much to his discredit, has, as often as not, appropriated wholesale the Bush Administration’s myopic and primitive approach in his own policy towards Colombia, which now bears little resemblance to the position he held as a principled senator. In October, Obama boosted a military approach towards drug interdiction which has failed to quash overall violence or lower drug production, and has displaced several million Colombians, by signing a new deal on the U.S. use of Colombian air bases, and, in doing so, angered most South American governments.

Regional distress over this new arrangement was justified by the secrecy of the bilateral negotiations that produced the agreement, along with U.S. Air Force comments – undermining the official line that the bases will be used solely for internal operations – that the deal “provides a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics-funded insurgencies, anti-U.S. governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters.” It is additionally worth noting that the U.S. military designated the principal base in question, Palanquero, as off-limits for aid after 17 civilians were killed in a 1998 bombing carried out by local troops, and only resumed such assistance in April 2008.

Moreover, having opposed Bush’s U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) during his campaign when he expressed concerns over Colombia’s deplorable record on anti-labor union violence, Obama reversed his position once he assumed office. “I commended President Uribe on the progress that has been made on human rights in Colombia and dealing with the killings of labor leaders there,” he said after meeting the Colombian leader at the White House in June. Subsequently, in September, the Obama Administration okayed the State Department’s annual certification and consequent white wash of Colombia on human rights in order to facilitate its continued military assistance to Bogota.

As COHA reported in June, the administration has seemingly turned a blind eye to the human rights situation in Colombia in order to justify its policies. After reaching a low in 2007, killings of Colombian trade unionists rose by 25 percent in 2008, to 49, a figure exacerbated by Colombia’s record of impunity, whereby convictions in cases of anti-union attacks are virtually unheard of. The Justice and Peace process continues under siege in the country, and right-wing paramilitary groups are resurgent following Uribe’s ineffective demilitarization program. The country’s intelligence and security service (DAS) was implicated last February in an illegal wiretapping scandal which involved some key pro-government politicians, and the military also remains accused of “False Positives” practices, whereby soldiers have murdered innocent civilians in order to meet quotas for killing guerrilla insurgents.

U.S. and Colombian relations with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela were among the most restively affected by the base agreement, which witnessed Chávez mobilizing his armed forces along the Colombian border and introducing a still-existing trade embargo. Rhetoric between Washington and Caracas has retained its fragile nature, with Secretary of State Clinton testifying before relations soured in the wake of the air base deal, “The prior administration tried to isolate [hostile governments], tried to support opposition to them, tried to … turn them into international pariahs. It didn’t work.” On January 17, 2010, a week after his administration apparently changed its tone by meeting with U.S. embassy officials to discuss Venezuelan spy claims, Chávez said, “it’s possible that there could be an easing of tensions.”

The “hostile rhetorical shots” COHA warned the Obama Administration to stop firing at Chávez and his allies last January, may have diminished, but they have been succeeded by equally worrisome subsequent actions. By continuing to pursue a free trade agreement with Bogotá, and continuing to advance the largely ineffective Plan Colombia in spite of the convincing body of evidence against President Uribe’s credentials as a defender of human rights, and in the face of the concerns of virtually every South American government, President Obama has seriously damaged his claims to be bringing “change” to U.S.-Latin American relations.

Guantánamo Symbolizes Disappointment Over U.S. Policy While Cuba Reform Stalls

On January 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, President Obama ordered the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay to be closed “no later than one year from now.” Writing at the time, COHA welcomed the announcement, but warned the president that this was just the first step towards realizing “change.” As events transpired, Obama proved unable to deliver on even this most modest of promises, admitting on November 18 that his deadline for the prisoners’ departure and the center being closed would not be met. It will now likely be 2011 at the earliest before the administration has secured and equipped a new facility in Illinois to house the remaining Guantánamo detainees.

This lamentable disappointment has left only one significant change in place in U.S. policy towards Cuba under the Obama Administration. The president announced in April that U.S. citizens would be granted the right of unlimited travel to the island in order to see relatives, rather than being restricted to one visit every three years as they were under Bush, while simultaneously lifting the $300-per-quarter cap on remittances.

Common to both of these flagship Cuba policies is the fact that the White House simply could have rescinded measures put in place by President Bush’s executive decrees. The centerpiece policies– restrictions on travel for most Americans, the decades-old trade embargo, and de facto occupation of the land surrounding Guantánamo Bay – all remain in effect, despite Obama’s laudable assertion several years ago that the embargo, having “utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro,” should be lifted.

Bilateral discussions about immigration last July, talks in Havana on September 17 over the reinstatement of a direct postal service, and the cooperation recently witnessed over the use of Cuban airspace for aid delivery in the wake of the January 12 Haitian earthquake, are all to be viewed as welcomed and constructive steps. However, progress has slowed as a result of various recent developments, including the December 4 arrest of a U.S. contractor in Havana on espionage charges, and Washington’s inclusion of Cuba on a list of states deemed by it to pose a “security risk” in the aftermath of the foiled Christmas Day airline bombing on a Detroit bound flight.

Were he seriously inclined to pursue “change” in this country’s relations with Cuba, Obama could do worse than begin by backing the efforts of the House Democrats who have considerable support for a bill which would end the ban on travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens, before addressing the formidable barrier posed by the Helms-Burton Act. However, it would appear that the president’s appetite for change has diminished. Obama continues to demand preconditions from Cuba on human rights issues – notably some action regarding its political prisoners – as a preliminary step toward any further meaningful relaxation of U.S. sanctions.

The case of Cuba provides an excellent illustration of the nature of Obama’s approach towards opening up wider Latin American ties with this country. Rhetoric has somewhat softened, and diplomacy has become more accommodating and less paranoid. At the same time, though, significant policy change has not been forthcoming. This will likely to continue to be the case for as long as the Obama White House ignores history and maintains the failed approach of enforcing preconditions for lifting its trade embargo, which will continue to be refused by Havana.

Drug War: U.S. Shirks, Mexico Bleeds

Drug-related violence in Mexico reached new peaks during 2009, with a staggering 7,800 homicides reported there, bringing to more than 16,000 the number of deaths that have been caused since President Felipe Calderon’s anti-trafficking offensive began in 2007. However, one of the unforeseen consequences of Mexico’s attempts to purge the major cartels and criminal gangs from its territory has been an increase in common crime across Central America. Over the last year, most notably in Honduras and Guatemala, domestically-organized crime syndicates serving as proxies for Mexican cartels have openly targeted their home governments and its security forces.

The Honduran head of anti-drug trafficking operations, General Julian Aristides Gonzalez, was gunned down in Tegucigalpa in December after seizing several large compounds thought to be owned by the Sinaloa cartel. During the past year, Honduras has also earned the dubious distinction of having one of the highest murder rates in the world, at 53 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Owing to its proximity to Mexico and the attraction offered to gangs by its environment of impunity and corruption, Guatemala has not fared much better. Most troubling has been the persistent intimidation carried out by the Zetas, the erstwhile armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, which is now a criminal enterprise in its own right. In March, its members threatened President Colom’s life after he denounced their infiltration of the Guatemalan government and security apparatus.

One of the most significant residual stories at the time of Obama’s inauguration, the drug war in Mexico and Central America has since been relegated to the back burner. Aid assigned to Mexico City under the terms of the Merida Initiative, the controversial U.S.-crafted security pact intended to contain the influence of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and Central America, has yet to materialize; to date, only 3 percent of the allotted $1.4 billion has been allocated and the initiative is far from being entirely operational.

Secretary of State Clinton has argued that complications delaying the disbursement of funds are costing lives in the region. However, as Plan Colombia already has proved, the militarization of what essentially should be a domestic U.S. health issue is now being viewed as a highly ineffective approach. Indeed, Calderon’s military offensive, whatever its successes, has failed to end the cycle of violence, which has gripped his country since 2007. High profile victories by the state against the cartels, such as the killing of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, and the arrests of Teodoro Garcia and Carlos Beltrán Leyva, have been routinely followed by acts of even more violent reprisal and intimidation, and violent struggles are reflected in the dangerous power vacuums they leave. Despite the optimistic claims of the U.S. and Mexican governments, the Washington-backed drug war in Mexico is in no way reducing the strength, capability or brazenness of drug trade organizations.

Early in 2009, former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia issued a plea to President Obama urging him to reconsider the present direction of the failing U.S.-led “drug war.” States across the United States are having a hard look at legalizing medicinal marijuana, a considerable leap considering the draconian laws that existed over the past three decades, although they are stopping far short of decriminalizing or even legalizing general consumption. But while various movements towards liberalizing drug consumption policies have also gained momentum in Mexico, Argentina and even Colombia, as long as the Obama Administration ignores such pleas and continues to target the vast majority of its resources at curbing the supply coming from abroad, the northbound traffic of narcotics will persist.

Indomitable Brazil

Much like the rest of Latin America’s engagement with Washington during 2009, the coup in Honduras represented the pivotal event in the story of Brazil’s rapport with the U.S., as the dawn of Barack Obama and the twilight of Lula da Silva coincided. Prior to June 28, Washington policy makers built on former President Bush’s efforts to establish a decisive, if essentially shallow relationship between the two countries. However, the institutional explosion witnessed in Honduras was but one in a series of noticeable ruptures between the governments, culminating with Lula referring to Obama as a “disappointment.” Nevertheless, Lula is in the last year of his final term, and as sure as Brazil’s global profile will continue to rise after he steps down, the Obama Administration’s multipolar worldview must include the South American giant.

Brazil’s intentions to become, if it is not already, a truly non-aligned superpower which can at the same time wield great influence on climate change negotiations, vie for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, seek to protect democracy in its sphere of influence and inject itself into the Middle East peace process, have been made perfectly clear in 2009. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial state visit to Brazil in November rubbed Washington the wrong way, but it is this very relationship of mutual respect, and the identification of common interests despite some divergent fundamentals, that President Obama would be wise to seek out with Brazil. Natural allies who in fact are likely to share many common concerns, the U.S. and Brazil have developed what should be seen as the beginnings of a resilient harmony that, because of its relevance, can be expected to weather occasional differences and disagreements.

After a few tense months of public verbal sparring (and sometimes worse) regarding the Honduran crisis, the Colombian military base spat and the Ahmadinejad visit, President Obama now has proposed to President Lula a joint U.S.-Canadian-Brazilian task force to provide aid, relief, security and rebuilding efforts in the wake of the recent devastation in Haiti (although, as of yet, the State Department has not noticeably deferred to its neighbors on non-humanitarian matters). Brazil’s existing peacekeeping enclave in that nation combined with the 20,000 U.S. personnel (including troops) who will be deployed to the island should certainly prove fraught with prospects, among some problems. Despite their sporadic differences, the natural partnership between both countries ought to be further encouraged and should remain a high priority for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela and the State Department for the region.

Assembling a Staff

Regarding personnel, the absence of key officials proved to be the biggest impediment to sound regional policy over much of the past twelve months, as Republican Senator for South Carolina Jim DeMint, arrogantly unhappy with Obama’s Honduras policy, blocked the confirmation of Valenzuela until November. The Georgetown professor eventually joined some of Obama’s roster of other Latin America appointees. These included his deputy, Julissa Reynoso; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Frank Mora; Dan Restrepo, the director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council; and several other figures who did not necessarily have a high silhouette. Taken as a team, their record up to now has been far from compelling. Valenzuela himself remains a somewhat unknown factor, not due to any lack of familiarity with the field, but the question remains whether he possesses the will to deliver any progressive thinking on U.S.-Latin American relations.

Once confirmed, COHA had occasion to celebrate Valenzuela’s considerable experience in Latin American affairs, and welcomed his pragmatic style that appears to fit Obama’s careful diplomatic approach to the region. Yet far more than pragmatism on the part of the U.S. is needed by the region. Valenzuela, one of the putative authors of Plan Colombia under President Clinton, hardly seems the person to predictably offer an alternative approach to that, and other failed policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations, or to automatically be sensitive to all regional issues. For example, during his first official visit to the region in December, Valenzuela reportedly riled the Argentine government with comments about the country’s unpaid debts. According to El País, Valenzuela spent the majority of his time meeting opposition leaders, before talking to journalists about how North American companies “worry” over the country’s “legal insecurity.”

In keeping with the administration’s overall approach, Secretary of State Clinton’s tone has fluctuated between the status quo hard line and one of accommodating tolerance. Despite making comments that suggest an improvement in relations between the U.S. and its critics in the region, she subsequently has proffered advice – for example, that doing the kind of business with Iran that Brazil et al have been pursuing is “a really bad idea” – which will have been wholly unwelcome.

While a full complement of Obama appointees may well bring more coherence, Valenzuela’s ill-timed Argentine gaffe hardly suggests a promising future, and Obama’s public support is likely to subside as disillusionment takes hold over a program that up to now has posited few surprises

Over the past year, Trade Representative Ron Kirk has buttressed his free trade credentials by unsurprisingly praising the Uribe government’s “remarkable progress” on anti-union violence. Moreover, the administration has lost its valuable White House counsel Greg Craig, lauded by COHA last year as an inspired appointment, after recriminations broke out over the lack of progress on resolving the issue of Guantánamo, and the special envoy for the region Obama promised to appoint during his campaign has failed to materialize.

In spite of its apparent unwillingness to make bold policy changes, and its readiness to sustain fractured relations with a number of the region’s governments inherited from the Bush era, the new administration appears to have retained a considerable measure of goodwill among the Latin American public. A poll conducted by Gallup between July and September found that 51 and 61 percent of respondents approved of the U.S. leadership and president’s performances respectively. Moreover, 71 percent of respondents to the annual Latinobarómetro poll were happy with Obama.

But by predominantly appointing Clinton administration veterans, Obama has ensured that his administration’s approach to Latin America will, in policy terms, adhere almost entirely to an inherited status quo with the Clinton years as its quarry. While a full complement of Obama appointees may well bring more coherence, Valenzuela’s ill-timed Argentine gaffe hardly suggests a promising future, and Obama’s public support is likely to subside as disillusionment takes hold over a program that up to now has posited few surprises.

Slow Diplomatic Change Meets Policy Intransigence

The indications that Barack Obama’s campaign trail contradictions and administration appointments gave both before and after his inauguration concerning the likely direction of his Western Hemisphere policy, were sufficient to instill concern. Unrest particularly was recorded by well informed policy groups and academic circles, and their worries will have increased rather than subsided.Over the past twelve months, a pattern has emerged whereby the Obama Administration’s idealistic rhetoric on U.S.-Latin American relations has been belied by its limited and uninspired actions.

While it ultimately failed to realize a bona fide multilateral solution to the crisis in Honduras, and in doing so invoked widespread criticism of its approach towards hemispheric affairs, the Obama Administration at least showed willingness to attempt to sidestep unilateralism. Since then, the administration’s dealings with Brazil at least have proved that a good working relationship with Washington no longer has to be predicated on slavish adherence to the White House’s worldview. Under Bush, President Lula’s recent engagement with Iran almost certainly would have seen Brasilia methodically shunned, but Obama’s subsequent cooperation with the Brazilian leader has provided evidence of change and maturity on his part. In a similar vein, the Obama Administration has succeeded in toning down much of the belligerent rhetoric aimed at Venezuela’s Chávez under Bush.

Nevertheless, when one looks at the administration’s concrete policy actions to date, it is clear that the status quo continues to prevail. Shortly after Obama called for “a new era of engagement” in a speech at the UN in September, Hugo Chávez remarked astutely, “Sometimes one gets the sensation that there are two Obamas. One, who gave the speech, is good. The other makes decisions that are contradictory to his speech.” Indeed, rhetoric and diplomacy are only one side of the coin.

It is telling that Obama’s most significant policy measure up to now has been to sign a highly controversial military agreement with Colombia, signaling an intention to continue pursuing the same militarized approach to the War on Drugs and Terror which failed to yield significant results in reducing coca cultivation under Clinton or Bush. Higher up on the distribution chain, the Mexican anti-drug offensive is entering its third year with no end in sight. The Merida Initiative, which, most likely, will not quell the violence, has yet to fully take off. Obama and members of his cabinet have begun to draw down their War on Drugs rhetoric, while simultaneously challenging the U.S.- supported structures that end up underpinning the Mexican cartels. These have been small steps in the right direction towards finally shelving the War for good, but the bottom line remains that until the U.S. addresses its own addiction problems, peace will not emerge in any of the countries caught in the corridors of drug trafficking.

In the meantime, the continued militarization of the drug war, coupled with an about-turn in favor of the U.S.-Colombian FTA, demonstrates that strategic geopolitical concerns remain at the forefront of Washington’s collective thinking, to the detriment of thousands of Colombian victims of human rights abuses, the millions of displaced in that country, as well as thousands of murdered civilians in Central America.

The status quo approach to Cuba also has persisted under Obama, where despite reversing some of Bush’s more damaging policies démarcheshe has failed to push further, insisting on reciprocal action from Havana, an approach which not only has failed U.S. policy makers for almost 50 years, but represents a significant deviation from the treatment of other “rogue states.”

Looking ahead, Obama is beginning his second year as president with a new hemispheric issue to contend with. The earthquake which devastated Haiti on January 12 drew swift pledges of financial aid and troops from Washington, but recriminations already are flying regarding the chaotic nature of the relief efforts and the delays in saturating the island with humanitarian relief and rescue helicopters. While it is too soon to judge the Obama Administration on its approach, Haiti will prove a good test of Washington’s willingness to effectively address seriously the consequences of another failed U.S. foreign policy arena and will undoubtedly inform an assessment of its regional policy achievements and failures six or twelve months from now.

Currently, the greatest hope for change comes not from the White House but from the House of Representatives, where Democrats have succeeded in holding up the Colombian FTA for almost three years, and are closing in on passing significant legislation which would lift the Cuban travel ban. The officials appointed by Obama to important administration positions have now been confirmed and, while skepticism should be expressed over the degree of change they are willing and capable of initiating, they must be given a chance before final judgment is passed. Likewise, Obama seems genuine in his attempts to alter the U.S.’s worldview, and time will provide a better picture of his success in forging a comprehensive multilateral approach to diplomacy as the region deals with multiple challenges in Haiti and new issues arise in other parts of the hemisphere. Nevertheless, while policy continues to move in the wrong direction on a number of fronts, regional disappointment surrounding the president’s first year in office is entirely justified, with the question remaining whether the White House is capable of doing more for the region than tossing feel-good rhetoric at its troubled boundaries.

8 thoughts on “¿Cambio? The Obama Administration in Latin America: A Disappointing Year in Retrospective

  • January 28, 2010 at 5:47 pm
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    Appreciating your entire article as a diplomatically written one I like its last paragraph best.
    In favour of President Obama one could think, he is not yet aware of all covered interventions, in which his advisors are involved in concerning Honduras, as well as Columbia, as well Venezuela etc. not to mention Cuba, more than ever the "Cuban Five".
    As it seems this case did not reach him at all.
    I personally was so disgusted when reading that he answered Yoani Sanchez at her blog respectfully, while it is rather known that she enjoys support from anti Cubans by criticizing the Cuban system, but he ignores consequently all letters asking for the release of the Cuban Five, inclusively the letter of Fernando González Llort's mother Magali Llort. Fernando is one of the Cuban Five.
    Moreover, he seems to agree with the subversive work of USAID and DIA in Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. Such behavior is not based on respect, although he had claimed to achieve relations based on mutual respect.

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  • January 28, 2010 at 6:13 pm
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    The breadth of this article brings focus to what is lacking and will hopefully be accomplished by a less belligerent and more enlightened US relationship with all humanity, everywhere. Reference to "regional disappointment" with the current president also describes, quite gently, the feeling of many within the US.

    I don't think I'm alone in disgust at the unmentionable crimes committed against the people of Honduras, with US turning a blind eye and supporting the illegal and unjust election there. Nor do I believe I am alone in thinking that United States citizens should muster the grit, guts and courage to transfer the prisoners held in Cuba to prisons in the U.S. and then decide what to do with them using the laws we have available in this fine democracy that was formed in part to reject prison terms imposed without a formal charge or trial.

    Really, the entire Guantánamo Navel Base should be returned to the Cubans, after the prison is turned into clean, green fields. A very large payment should quickly be given Cuba, as a bonus rent premium with full commitment to clean any mess or pollution. Cuba also should be given substantial foreign aid directed at shelter, clinics, libraries, schools, public transportation, potable water and sanitation design which returns waste to the soil and eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers. The US is not rebounding from dire economic straights and needs all the international support it can generate, returning Guantánamo to Cuba would earn great respect throughout the Americas.

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    • January 29, 2010 at 6:36 am
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      Are we going to populate those green fields with unicorns as well? It's interesting how the only people who hate Obama's policies are the fringes: The ultra-right thinks he's the Antichrist incarnate and the ultra-left thinks he's Bush II. When a majority of the population approves of the president's actions and only a vocal minority on either side complains, isn't that kind of funny?

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      • January 31, 2010 at 3:01 pm
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        Sounds a little bit like the silent majority that didn't stand up as dominoes fell on their theory about Vietnam. Now that was funny. One need not be on any fringe to notice that during Vietnam the shortages revolved around guns and butter while now there's billions for bombs and bailouts and the squeeze is on schools, health insurance and mortgage adjustments to keep millions in there homes.

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  • February 19, 2010 at 2:59 pm
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    A constant and thorough analysis of any administration's foreign policy is necessary in our democracy and helps advance our thinking and improve our policies. Unfortunately, while Hursthouse and Ayuso provide many interesting thoughts, their piece suffers from an obvious ideological bias, it is rife with inaccuracies, and it portrays COHA as the keeper of all wisdom and knowledge as regards the "correct" US foreign policy toward Latin America–witness how COHA discusses its "warnings" to the administration. Furthermore, the authors ignore their own contradictory stances, even as they condemn the administration for its contradictions. To illustrate just one: Hursthouse and Ayuso indicate Obama should drop any "preconditions" prior to dealing with Cuba (e.g., when insisting the island demonstrate some progress on human rights) but wholly support human rights improvements in Colombia as a precondition for a Free Trade Agreement. The message? That it is acceptable to deal with governments who imprison their people for exercising free speech but it is not acceptable to deal with a country suffering a crime problem and a lack of judicial capacity.

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  • February 19, 2010 at 3:02 pm
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    (con’td) COHA's position demonstrates it is more concerned with its own agenda than it is with an academic, enlightening, and objective analysis. The authors also ignore that foreign policy is not a one-way street—we can devise our plan but the target of that plan plays a significant role. Latin America isn’t the audience of a one-man US show; it is a participant. We need to recognize that no amount of outreach will get Hugo Chavez to be a responsible democrat locally and a reliable neighbor regionally; the ever-obstructionist Itamaraty is more responsible for any lack of progress or cooperation in US-Brazil relations than a lack of ideas coming out of State Department (and I'm not convinced this is the case); and while the US’s response in Honduras could have benefited from a healthy shot of coherence, this issue was the region’s to resolve, not ours; yet even Brazil—whom our authors call “indomitable” and a “truly non-aligned superpower”—decided to sit this one out and relegate itself to hand-wringing and conspicuous inaction following the unheralded arrival of Zelaya to its embassy.

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  • February 20, 2010 at 12:30 pm
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    This analysis of the Colombian situation is such bullshit. COMPLETELY biased, politically motivated and botched analysis. "Plan Colombia has been a failure in lowering overall violence" Yeah.. I guess that why kidnappings are down 96% since 2002 right? I just wasted 20 minutes of my life reading this piece of cr@p.

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  • March 3, 2010 at 4:35 am
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    If any of you have ever spent more than a two week vacation in Colombia or don't live in a middle/upper class Colombian life style, you would come to realize that COHA's presentation about Colombia is straight on. After becoming intimately acquainted with desplazados, police, army, orphans, widows, paramilitaries, NGO workers, and drug smugglers, you realize how utterly hopeless a country can be, and how things really haven't changed (unless you count the superficial security "improvement" in the cities and kidnapping "statistics"). I originally had hope in Obama, and many Colombians do because he's "black". As with most Colombians, as well as U.S. citizens, surface news reporting becomes absolute truth, and ignorance is perpetuated. Thanks to organizations like COHA, and articles like the one above, we can come to acquaint ourselves with a more balanced, and consequently, critical view: one that I can back up with personal and academic experience.

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