Acknowledging the Americas

In 2008, President Barack Obama had a clear idea for Latin American foreign policy. The Bush administration, distracted by events in the Middle East, had pursued a harmful hemispheric policy of blustering unilateralism and neglect; Obama, conversely, would pursue a “new partnership” with the Americas, one marked by cooperation and mutual interests. His subsequent election was heralded throughout Latin America as an opportunity to repair the damage of the Bush era. According to one Latin American barometer poll, US favorability in the eyes of the Latin American public leapt from 58 percent in 2008 to 74 percent in 2009. Judging from the astounding chorus of leaders and citizens in the region who expressed curiosity and excitement about Obama’s election, the hemisphere seemed primed to embrace change. But now, over halfway through Obama’s term, little progress has been made. To date, this administration has failed to renew diplomacy in the Americas because of its lack of sustained attention and its utter incoherence. The bulk of Obama’s references to Latin America have been generalities. His National Security Strategy, published in May 2010, mentions the Americas poetically — he writes of developing allies “from the Americas to Africa; from the Middle East to Southeast Asia”—but devotes little attention to specific cases. His 2011 State of the Union address made but one reference to the Americas; rather than discuss policy, he simply announced an intention to travel to the region. And although Obama’s immediate priority for the hemisphere was reinstating a special envoy to link the State Department to Latin America, it took over three months to merely nominate a replacement for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela after his resignation last May.

Obama has lost time and momentum to inherited wars and the economic crisis, but nonetheless his track record in the Americas is inconsistent at best. Despite Obama’s emphasis on engagement, the United States has experienced ambassadorial dismissals with Venezuela, Mexico, Bolivia and Ecuador. Several incidents, such as the Argentine seizure of US military equipment from a cargo plane this February, developed unnecessarily from minor misunderstandings between countries into divisive posturing and headline-grabbing criticism of each other’s leaders. While this administration has laudably eased restrictions for travel and remittances to Cuba, it has failed to make good on its promises to restore negotiations with the receptive Cuban regime. In 2009, Cuban President Raúl Castro, in 2009, went so far as to say, “we are willing to discuss everything… We could be wrong, we admit it.” But Cuba-US diplomatic relations have since broken down due to delays in the closing of Guantánamo and harsh language demanding immediate regime change. Lastly, the Honduran coup in June 2009, in which the Honduran military deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, was handled poorly by the Obama administration in diplomatic terms. At first, Obama’s swift condemnation of the coup matched the regional response and demonstrated his commitment to democratic processes. Subsequently, though, the administration pursued a middle-ground policy, avoiding decisive action to reinstall Zelaya and instead acknowledging the coup-installed president Roberto Micheletti as a key player in negotiations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to agree that restoring constitutional order in Honduras would necessitate Zelaya’s return left many Latin American leaders with the perception of ambivalence and indecision on the part of the administration.

Obama has paid for his shortcomings in the region. In a 2011 Gallup poll, Obama’s approval rating dropped by an average of 7 percent in Latin American countries between 2009 and 2010. Another poll conducted in the same two years demonstrated a 10 percent average falloff in the number of Central and South Americans who thought that the US-Latin America relationship would be strengthened by Obama’s presidency. Obama had promised “principled and sustained diplomacy in the Americas,” but his administration has been unclear on its goals and inconsistent in its attention. This confusion reflects a debilitating general lack of information about the current state of politics in Latin America.

The most attention-grabbing component of the current stalemate is the emergence of new political actors­ – the so-called “populist Left” governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua –who have changed the Latin American landscape. In these nations, charismatic politicians have harnessed public dissatisfaction with the political system to win electoral support. More than anything, this takes shape as a reaction against two decades of “triumphalist” neoliberalism throughout Latin America: the set of International Monetary Fund (IMF) prescriptions, fervently promoted by the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, that demanded rapid trade liberalization, financial deregulation, privatization and the elimination of government spending. After decades of slow or negative growth, explosive economic crises, stagnation and highly skewed income distribution, politicians like Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez have rejected what financier-philanthropist George Soros has called “market fundamentalism”–and often the United States and its “imperialistic” economic policies along with it. In its place, they have attempted to institute a balance of state-controlled industries, broad social programs, and participatory democracy.

These governments have conformed poorly with existing political labels utilized by Washington and the media. Some members of the global press have evoked an antiquated mentality, conceiving of this phenomenon as revamped communism, resurrecting Cold War terminology of containment and the pernicious red tide. Others have sensationally taken fascism or dictatorship as their metaphorical base. Regardless, the race to categorize the phenomenon under one convenient label has trampled all of its nuanced political subtlety.

As a result, many considerations of US foreign policy in the Americas are clumsily bifurcated. On one side of the divide are the guaranteed allies: partners in free trade and the hosts of US military bases. These countries, among which are Colombia, Chile and El Salvador, receive glowing praise from Washington for their commitment to democracy, moderation, liberal values and economic openness. On the other side of this false division are the confrontational anti-American threats, most notably Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia. These nations have been labeled as dangerous, subject to severe sanctions, and threatened with consequences in the international arena. Unfortunately, in this closed system, countries falling anywhere between these extreme poles are poorly understood and frequently overlooked.

Progress in the Americas ­– and a restoration of Obama’s plan to improve hemispheric relations – will require a more ample understanding of the political and cultural complexities in Latin America. With respect to the US, the diverse countries of Latin America lie on a broad spectrum. To varying degrees, these nations are both open to engagement with the US and looking to expand independently of Washington. Indeed, if there is any unifying feature in current Latin American politics, it is an effort to balance the US relationship with new regional or international allies. Each country’s unique balance depends on complex factors like domestic politics, historical-cultural understandings, social systems and geography.

Chile, for example, has consistently received praise from the West as “the good house in a bad neighborhood.” Its commitment to liberalism and historical relationship with the United States have strictly identified Chile as an automatic ally. In recent years, however, Chile has broadened its gaze. First, it has sought to augment its economic interdependence with Asia through incorporation into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Second, Chile has attempted to solidify its presence in Latin America through the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN). These three regional institutions, together with various free trade agreements worldwide, are aimed at promoting trade beyond the United States. Chile still embraces a close relationship with the US, but it has replaced the singular dependence of its past foreign policy with a newfound diversification of its foreign relationships. But this has not threatened US interests; despite Chile’s diversification, US-Chile trade still grew 17 percent between 2009 and 2010, and Chile remains a committed regional ally.

The same can be said for Colombia, another long-standing US ally. President Juan Manuel Santos has not abandoned the pro-American stance of his predecessor, but he has stated that “it’s common sense and common logic to diversify your international relations, especially in a world that is changing.” As such, Santos has developed a more pragmatic relationship of engagement with Chávez, looked to Europe and China for foreign investment and expanded into Latin American regional integration. At the same time, he has called for the United States to remain a central figure in his foreign policy and for US diplomats to “reshuffle their cards” and revitalize their attention to the Americas. In both Colombia and Chile, the reality is neither submission nor rejection; both countries remain strong, but not unconditional, allies of the United States. They increasingly expand the range of their foreign policy in order to prevent economic or political overdependence on one international actor.

On the other side is Venezuela, the so-called anti-U.S. enemy in the region. Chávez’s anti-neoliberal rhetoric is radical and far-reaching; he frequently accuses the United States’ “rampant, irresponsible capitalism” of leading the world “on the road to hell.” His desire to spread “21st century socialism” – a reconsideration of the role of government in development – throughout South America is equally fervent. To do so, Chávez has created institutions like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which provides a solidarity-based (and petroleum-funded) alternative to the neoliberal model of regional integration. Chávez has also looked globally to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for ideological fraternity and political support. This coalition of odd bedfellows has struck a State Department nerve with its denouncement of the “Yankee Empire” and its steady warnings of US exploitation.

Chávez’s rhetoric, however, is a mere political tool. It does not capture Venezuela’s full political and economic reality. Despite the criticisms levied against the US government, Venezuela is highly reliant on the increasing material benefits of trade with its top trading partner: the United States. In 2009 alone, trade between the two countries reached $37 billion; 45 percent of Venezuelan exports went to the US, and 24 percent of Venezuelan imports came from the United States. Venezuela sent an average of 1.1 million barrels of petroleum products per day to the United States that year. This great irony was highlighted by Pedro Mario Burelli, a former board member of Venezuela’s state-owned petroleum company: Venezuela’s anti-US “petropolitics” is, in large part, funded by and dependent on the very country it is supposedly meant to undermine. From a diplomatic standpoint, Venezuela has also indicated its willingness to engage the United States on issues of drug trafficking and energy security. These various areas of cooperation and dependence illustrate that the anti-U.S. rhetoric in Venezuelan politics is only one component – and not necessarily the most fundamental one – of a multifaceted, complex foreign policy.

The distinction between rhetoric and reality is subtle, but it is of vital importance. For all of his caustic flamboyance, Chávez is a political actor seizing a historic opportunity. He, like many Latin American politicians after the 1990s, has channeled widespread discontent into support for a new range of policy choices in the region. As an example, it can be noted that ALBA—originally the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas—was conceived as an alternative to George W. Bush’s proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), essentially a NAFTA-like agreement for all of Latin America. The Bolivarian project, by means of its access to valuable energy resources, tries to circumvent traditionally US-led institutions and enable Latin American countries to interact with the United States out of interest rather than necessity. But this is a challenge by alternative, not by aggressive antagonism. It merely provides a wider range of choice. It does not, by any means, prevent the United States from reformulating its hemispheric policy and presenting still-newer alternatives. The U.S. needs to move past its petulant reactions to rhetoric in order to develop a more complete understanding of the complex realities in Latin America. Washington is loath to apologize for its own historical understandings and national pride; begrudging those of other nations is entirely counterproductive to policy and progress.

It is a mistake to overestimate Chávez’s regional influence. Many of the countries that have become increasingly involved with Chávez’s initiatives have done so based on a pragmatic recognition of opportunity, not because of ideological solidarity. One illuminating example is Josette Altmann Borbón’s 2009 study of ALBA and Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s preferential payment agreement to provide cheap oil to the region. Borbón finds that Petrocaribe has won widespread support throughout Central America and the Caribbean because of the low prices and delayed payments for oil that it offers. ALBA’s political-ideological project, on the other hand, has not gained much ground as countries – even including Nicaragua, with its rhetorically anti-US and anti-imperialist president Daniel Ortega – have maintained their free-trade agreements and close diplomatic ties with the United States. Similarly, many of the states in South America that have increased interaction with Venezuela have done so on a limited, pragmatic basis. Michael Schifter, writing for Foreign Affairs, points out that even in 2006, when anti-US sentiment in the Americas was perhaps at its highest point, most Latin American leaders still did not perceive Chávez’s Bolivarian “revolution” as a suitable model for their countries. Today, Brazil and Colombia’s relationships with Venezuela are marked by tenuous pragmatism rather than ideological harmony. Just as Chávez’s rhetoric exaggerates the anti-US tendencies of his government, Chávez’s sway over the region has been equally overstated.

Across Latin America, US primacy is eroding; in its place, countries enjoy a broadening variety of policy options. Argentina, for example, faced one of the worst crises in recent history in 2001, when the economy collapsed after a decade of subordination to the United States and unfettered liberalization. Now, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – who, along with her husband, has garnered widespread support as a result of her hard-line negotiations with the IMF – has looked toward rapprochement with Hugo Chávez and regional economic integration as diplomatic counterbalances to the role of the United States. Brazil is another example of this new autonomy. While embracing globalization, Brazil has carefully maintained its social programs and essential state functions. It welcomes the United States as a potential partner, but its international projection – illustrated by its inclusion in the BRIC countries, its campaign for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and its cooperative initiatives with India and South Africa – gives Brasilia a fuller range of options.

This is not to say that the United States’ role in Latin America has ended. On the contrary, the region is, and will remain, politically and economically critical. Latin America is the largest foreign source of oil for the United States, which imports 30 percent of its oil from the Americas, compared to only 20 percent from the Middle East. From 1996 to 2006, US merchandise trade with Latin America increased by 139 percent. In fact, Latin America is now the United States’ fastest-growing regional trade partner, and the United States must look to expand this relationship as it climbs from recession. Beyond economics, the hemisphere is forced to interact because of common concerns, including climate change, alternative energy, poverty and inequality, security and drug trafficking. These policy areas are trans-national in nature and directly affect political, economic and social life at home. US policymakers cannot afford to alienate themselves from the process of debating and resolving these issues.

Nevertheless, the United States no longer possesses the political capital to act without regard to each nation’s interests and political environment. In the past, the Latin American countries were viewed as “junior partners;” the US would paternalistically exploit the region’s perceived weaknesses to make policy demands. The senior–junior partner dynamic is now a relic of the past. Recent history offers an illuminating negative example: the Bush administration’s failure to bring the FTAA to fruition. The proposed agreement ignored the rejection of boundless neoliberalism throughout Latin America, disregarded the region’s existing institutions of economic integration, and paid no attention to fundamental differences in the conditions between countries. For the US to maintain a contribution to policymaking in the Americas and to counteract the steady emergence of new actors like China in the region, its diplomacy must be smarter.

Considering that Obama is facing an upcoming election and initiating withdrawal from Afghanistan, he may be faced with a rare opportunity to give new coherent direction and attention to his Latin American policy. The Council on Foreign Relations’ 2008 Task Force Report on Latin America suggests, among other things, that the US expand its foreign aid; continue its assistance of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), an independent organization promoting sustainable economic growth in poor nations; create new initiatives for poor pockets of middle-income countries not qualifying for MCA; promote investment in environmentally sustainable energy infrastructure; and commit intellectual resources to the training and professionalization of police and security forces in the region.

Several other changes could more immediately improve diplomacy in the Americas. First, ambassadorial contact must be reinstated where it was lost. Second, the various US State Department actors involved in the region should benefit from greater consistency in their public statements. Third, diplomacy with the Castro regime must proceed beyond the all-or-nothing expectation of rapid regime change on the island. Last, but perhaps most importantly, the administration must push toward reform in the governance of the IMF. The IMF and the US operated hand-in-hand in the region in the 1980s and 1990s; by pushing for extension of the body’s governance to include more developed countries, the US could more concretely distance itself from those highly criticized years. Each of these goals, however symbolic, will likely contribute to the restoration of Latin American approval of Obama and increase political capital in the region for longer-term projects. They could help Obama return to the fundamentals of his diplomacy: mutual cooperation, non-paternalistic engagement and respect for autonomous democratic processes.

Most importantly, though, this administration should recognize that it is the manner in which policy is formulated and executed that most pressingly demands change.  No matter the issue, the US must consider its hemispheric partners to be an essential, immediate part of the planning process. If the hemisphere is to form a new partnership, it will only be on an equal basis; the era of neglect, thankfully, has come to an end.