Latin America: Obama is Expected to Listen

It’s not every day that Latin America tells the United States what to do.  Or is it?  Several of Latin America’s brightest minds and potential future employees of the new administration gathered on Monday, January 26 to discuss the Obama Administration and Latin America’s Rising Powers. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza gave the keynote address for the day-long panel, serving the crowd of academics and practitioners a healthy dose of humble pie alongside their chicken and eggplant parmesan:  “The fifth Summit of the Americas in April 2009 will give Obama a seat at the table to discuss policies with them [the Latin Americans], not for them.”

The United States lack of a clear and engaged policy towards Latin America was a general theme that emerged at the discussion.  The panel was dedicated to laying out Latin America’s rising powers and the extra-hemispheric players expected to feature prominently for the next four years.   Dan Erikson, Senior Associate for U.S. policy and Director of Caribbean programs of the Inter-American Dialogue, recognized this weak policy trend:  “The U.S. is still dithering over Latin America policy.”  

Erikson laid out three trends in Latin America over the last few years: U.S. influence in Latin America has been vastly reduced, due to the U.S. decreased relationship with Bolivia and Venezuela and increased U.S engagement in the Middle East; the assertiveness of Latin American countries, especially Venezuela and Bolivia, in their foreign policies and foreign influences; and the rise of extra hemispheric players in the region, such as India, China, Russia, Iran, and the European Union.

Erikson reminded the crowd of the growing interests and relationships of these extra hemispheric players in the region.  Last November, Russia conducted military exercises with Venezuela and had a friendly visit with Cuba.  China did not sell military weapons to Latin America but its growing trade relationship with the region-one hundred billion dollars in trade in 2007- have highlighted its status as a global player in the region.  In addition to economic interests, China’s motivations in the region include a desire to seek allies in the developing world and the desire to isolate Taiwan.

On the other hand, Andrew Selee, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, spoke on the topic of U.S.-Mexico relations.  Unlike Erikson, Selee assured the crowd that although Mexico may not be a top focus for the Obama administration, there has not been a lack of attention on Mexico.  He restated the mutual interest and importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, and stressed the need for increased strategic thinking in the areas of security, migration, and economic integration.  “Eighty-three percent of Mexican exports go to the United States.  Culturally, Mexico is with Latin America.  Mexico’s national interests are with the United States.”

Brazilian Ambassador to the United States, Antonio de Aguilar Patriota, and Paulo Sotero, Director of the Woodrow Wilson’s Brazil Institute paid homage to Brazil’s growing power in the region.  Sotero began his talk by praising the pragmatic position of the United States toward Latin America, but guaranteed that “Brazilians don’t lose sleep over whether the United States has interest in Brazil.” He emphasized the strength of Brazil’s healthy and regulated market and environmental initiatives.  However, he added that U.S.-Brazil relations could be strengthened in this arena through mutual cooperation on issues of biofuels and economic and social development with their Africa neighbors.

Ambassador Patriota distinguished South America as a distinct region of social and economic prosperity.  Emphasizing Brazil’s economic prowess in the region, he addressed U.S.-Brazil relations by acknowledging that “we are way beyond polemics between neo-liberalism and government intervention.”  He focused on the United States economic crisis as a reinforcement of Brazil’s experiments in autonomy and a free market system.

What the United States wants to hear, and what Latin America will tell it

Remarks by OAS Secretary General Miguel preceded the afternoon panel’s topic of the priorities and challenges that faced the Obama administration.  Miguel focused much of his address on the April Summit of the Americas agenda.  He outlined the long and short-term agenda themes as trade, immigration, energy, global warming, crime, and inter-hemispheric relationships with Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, but reminded the crowd that no one expects all the issues to be solved.  

He also held that United States will receive a seat at the Summit table to “discuss policies with them, not for them” and reiterated his expectation that Obama goes to the Summit “to listen.” Miguel responded to an audience member’s question on the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights’s view of Guantanamo by agreeing that Guantanamo had never been compatible with U.S. OAS obligations.  He summed up the situation by declaring that the closing of the detention centers was “a good sign for all of the hemisphere.”

The afternoon panel invited commentary from Washington, D.C. organizations WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America), Inter-American Dialogue, and the Council on Foreign Relations.  Robert Pastor, Former National Security Advisor for Latin America, and most of the other panelists agreed with the statement made by Peter Hakim, Inter-American Dialogue President: “The best thing that Obama can do for Latin America is to solve its own economic crisis.”

Joy Olson, Executive Director of WOLA, saw three priorities for the new administration: changing U.S. policy towards Cuba, a review of U.S. drug policy, and increased public security in the region.  Wolson received a few titters and nods of approval when she remarked that, “there should be term limits on U.S. foreign policy.”

Most speakers agree upon the need for increased dialogue with Venezuela and Bolivia, and Pastor emphasized the return of U.S. ambassadors to the two countries.  Ideas of increased democratization and improvements in relationships with Latin American countries echoed throughout most of the afternoon.  Julia Sweig, Director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, emphasized the need for new policy towards Cuba.  Sweig stated that the United States is now “liberated from a Florida policy”, and that as seen in the past elections, Florida is no longer crucial to the democratic party. She repeated Obama-elect’s announcement that he would end the restrictions on Cuba-America remittances, and suggested the need for Obama to follow up on his claims. According to Sweig, more than 60% of Cubans want an end to the embargo.

Where the panelists did disagree was on the Free Trade Agreement and its successes, or lack thereof.  Some of the panelists opposed the FTAA, citing concern about issues of labor rights in Colombia, rights of journalists in the Americas, and the right to free press, among other issues.

However, it seems that the majority of the panelist would agree on two things for Latin America policy in the new administration:  a more pragmatic approach to the region and increased diplomacy.

Larissa Hotra is a Master’s Candidate at The George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs.