Opportunities and Obstacles for Obama in Latin America

By Michael Rose
February 20, 2009

In a definitive policy speech on Latin American relations at a Cuban American National Foundation luncheon on May 23, 2008, President Barack Obama promised to “pursue aggressive, principled, and sustained diplomacy in the Americas from Day One.”

In a January 15 speech, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez extended a warm invitation to Obama saying, “If he wants to converse with the Venezuelans, we are here at the order without conditions.”

But Obama has reserved some particularly harsh words for Chavez. In a January 13 interview, for instance, Obama denounced Venezuela’s alleged support for the Colombian paramilitary group FARC.

“We must be very firm when we see this news that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or backing malicious entities like FARC,” Obama said. “This creates problems that are not acceptable.”

Chavez has not shied away from the challenge.

“I respond in kind, Mr. Obama,” Chavez said. ‘We have also learned to be very firm … I hope we’re at the point where Obama will correct himself.”

This extended dialogue between Obama and Chavez reveals the difficult political landscape that Obama will have to navigate in his interactions with Latin America.

During his campaign for president, Obama framed his policy very simply:

“My policy towards the Americas will be guided by the simple principle that what’s good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States.”

He set as his goal the promotion of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—among the region’s people.

He promised to increase diplomacy by reinstating a Special Envoy for the Americas that ended during Bush’s presidency. He promised to support responsible social institutions, to cooperate in improving security and narcotics fighting, and to foster economic alliances that include environmental and human rights provisions.

Latin America scholars agree that Obama has an opportunity to garner hemispheric support at a time when the general Latin American populace has a negative view of the United States. In a letter to Obama, 300 regional experts wrote:

“U.S. prestige in the region is now at a historic low … Our hope is that you will embrace the opportunity to inaugurate a new period of hemispheric understanding and collaboration for the common welfare.”

But this type of improvement will not come easily. Obama faces a new reality that has taken shape in the region during a period of relative inattention from the Bush Administration.

“Latin America has witnessed a succession of elections over the past few years that have resulted in victories for leftist candidates who, though representing various currents of thinking and governing in very diverse settings, share a determination to address longstanding inequalities and injustices,” said Eric Hershberg, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University and president of the Latin American Studies Association. These popular movements have been bolstered by modest social and economic successes.

Obama already has the good will of some leftist governments, especially Chile and Brazil. Chilean president Michelle Bachellet offered words of encouragement.

“From here, we send him our best wishes,” she said on Chilean radio.

Ramón Sánchez Parodi, a native Chilean and secretary general of the Organization of American States, looked forward to “a relationship in which no one tries to impose his ends, and agreements and consensuses are sought after.”

“The tensions, and there certainly are tensions,” said Hershberg, “are primarily with governments in the Andes—Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.”

Venezuela presents the most difficult case. Chavez has made vitriolic attacks against American imperialism a hallmark of his political identity, and maintaining this opposition will likely remain in his political interest.

Obama has said that “Venezuela is a country of great commercial importance in the region,” and “a principle producer of oil,” placing him in a conflicted diplomatic situation. He has decried Chavez’s government as a faux democracy and an exporter of terrorist activities, and he may have difficulty upholding these principled objections while improving diplomatic relations and advancing American interests.

Obama has also voiced his support for Plan Colombia, a continuing Clinton Administration initiative that provides Colombia with financial aide, ostensibly for social purposes. Hershberg, along with other experts, criticized the initiative, saying it “has entailed the transfer of billions of dollars in military aid to a government that has compiled a gruesome human rights record.” Once again, Obama will have to balance his humanitarian principles with diplomatic expediencies in pursuing improved relations.

In Cuba, Obama has received a mixed response from President Raul Castro and his convalescent older brother Fidel. Raul has agreed to open diplomatic dialogue with the Obama Administration and said to reporters during a tour in Argentina, “he seems like a good man. Good luck to him.” Fidel reportedly said to Argentine president Cristina Kirchner that Obama “is a sincere man.”

But in Granma Internacional, the newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, Obama’s Cuba policy received harsh criticism under the heading, “Reflections of Comrade Fidel.”

“One can translate Obama’s speech into a formula of hunger for the nation, consignments as alms, and visits to Cuba as propaganda for consumerism and the unsustainable way of life that sustains it,” the newspaper reported Castro as saying.

These attacks refer to Obama’s statements that he will maintain Washington’s economic embargo while allowing Cuban Americans “unlimited family travel and remittances to the island.” The ascension of Raul Castro and his more open foreign policy will give Obama a unique opportunity to work towards rapprochement with Cuba, but he will have to act in the context of the communist government’s desire to save face.

“The administration should draw on the good will and diplomatic capabilities of such countries as Brazil, Mexico and Chile, to seek their assistance in bringing about a thaw in relations with Havana,” said Hershberg.

This opinion alludes to the developing diplomatic unity of Latin America, as exemplified by the emergence of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). This phenomenon can be used in Washington’s favor, but will make it more difficult for the United States to impose its will unilaterally.

Obama has also proposed an “Energy Partnership for the Americas” to supply the hemisphere with affordable and environmentally friendly energy. This plan will rely on the support of Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy and a lead producer of ethanol fuels.

Guy Hursthouse, research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said the United States will not be able to pursue the plan unilaterally.

“The U.S. can’t weigh in and implement its own policies,” Hursthouse said. “Brazil can resist attempts at implementing unilateral policies.”

He attributes this to the growing investment and influence of “outside actors, such as China, Iran, Russia, and the E.U.”

Obama recognizes that “in the 21st century, we cannot treat Latin America and the Caribbean as a junior partner.”

The unfolding of Obama’s Latin America policy will test whether Obama will be able to intertwine American political values, which he has uncompromisingly propounded, and American political interests into a unified policy. In Latin America’s case, the question can be put in this way: Is what is best for the Latin American people really what is best for the United States, or will one group of interests have to be compromised for the other?