Obama in Latin America: Avoiding the Obvious

G. Philip Hughes (Ambassador to Barbados and Eastern Caribbean, 1990-1993)


Two years into his Presidency, you’ve got to sort of feel sorry for Barack Obama.  In 2008 he was a political miracle—the first-term junior Senator from Illinois, community-activist-turned-State-Senator (if only briefly), who rose from relative obscurity to unseat the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee and capture the White House.  Nowadays the guy can’t seem to catch a break.

Consider his twice-postponed five-day trip to Latin America last week.  Obama visited one very important country, Brazil—the world’s fifth largest nation by population and seventh largest economy; a nation with aspirations to be the leader of Latin America, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a major player in global politics.  And he visited two smaller but significant US friends in the region, Chile in South America and El Salvador in Central America.  All-in-all, a harmless good-will mission.

And he couldn’t escape criticism for making the trip!  Since his trip came against the backdrop of spreading turmoil in the Middle East and, specifically, the uprising against dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, he was criticized for not postponing the trip—again—to attend to that conflict and the imminent use of US forces in it.  Or for not curtailing the trip, by dropping one stop or another.  Or for appearing to conduct warfare “by remote control” while taking his family on a “spring break” trip to the Southern Hemisphere.

And he was criticized for the content and message of the trip, too.  Agreed, Obama was roundly praised for striking the tone of “partnership” with the United States’ neighbors to the south—and not a relationship of “senior partner and junior partner,” but of equal partners—a theme he struck two years ago at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad and Tobago.  And he won plaudits for symbolic gestures—kicking a soccer ball with kids from the Cidade de Deus favela in Rio or visiting the tomb of murdered human rights activist, Archbishop Oscar Romero, in San Salvador.

But critics were quick to point out that, while Obama’s speeches and press conference remarks pointed to many problems in US relations with these countries—gun exports that help fuel violence; US immigration laws that rankle with many in Latin America; US tariff barriers against Brazilian ethanol exports and subsidies for many US agricultural exports—Obama brought no concrete solutions with him.  He was said to have cheapened the currency of the Presidency by styling his visit to Brazil as virtually a trade mission.  And he couldn’t even address why his Administration still hasn’t submitted for Senate ratification a pair of long-pending trade agreements with two of America’s closest friends in the region—Colombia and Panama.

This raft of criticism is, I think, unfair.  It would have been costly to the United States’ image and perception in Latin America to cancel a Presidential trip there for a third time.  Crises are a recurrent fact of life for modern Presidents; they can occur anytime and long-planned Presidential activities needn’t always give place in the face of the latest “flap.”  (In fact, a certain serenity and quiet power is demonstrated when a President handles a crisis in a far-flung portion of the globe without deviating from his plans and itinerary.)  And it would have been completely unrealistic for anyone—Latin Americans or the press—to have imagined that Obama would arrive with concrete, definitive solutions to problems that have vexed our relationships with these neighbors for decades.  Carping critics shouldn’t detract from the statement of interest in and commitment to the region that Obama’s trip represents.

But there are two aspects of Obama’s trip, little remarked by observers, that should be troubling to us.  The first is not so much where President Obama visited; it’s where he could not visit.  In sum, except for Peru, Uruguay, and perennially redoubtable Costa Rica, there were practically no other countries in Latin America that President Obama could have safely visited on this trip.  A number of countries ruled by anti-American populists—Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela—would not have merited a visit, and their hostility to the United States and compromise or betrayal of genuinely competitive democracy would have made any such visit an almost certain embarrassment.  Colombia and Panama can’t be visited now because Obama would have no way to explain why their free trade agreements with the United States languish unratified in Washington.  Still other nations—Honduras, whose post-coup democratically-elected government remains controversial, and Guatemala, descending deeper into lawlessness, would have been unsuitable because of their domestic conditions.

This is a far cry from the situation any other President, from Ronald Reagan onwards, would have confronted in Latin America.  From the mid-1980s onwards, any American President would have been able to visit almost any country in Latin America (except Cuba and, for the last dozen years, Venezuela) without fear of being deliberately embarrassed by the hosting government or seeming to endorse the reprehensible acts of his hosts.  This is a measure of how far the political situation in Latin America has deteriorated in the absence of strong and articulate US leadership, promoting—and insisting on—authentically competitive democracy, respect for citizens’ civil and property rights, real and effective judicial independence, etc.

Second, US policymakers—for this Presidential trip and in many other contexts—have this habit of failing to notice or remark about the proverbial “elephant in the drawing room” regarding Latin America.  Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her pre-trip address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Obama during his trip, continue to talk as if all is well with democracy and economic freedom in Latin America.  They barely reference the fact that, in recent years and partly due to the malign influence of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, this region has become cleaved into two camps.  There is a pragmatic group of countries following orthodox and mainly free-market approaches to managing their economies and practicing authentically competitive democracy.  And there is a cabal of countries run by populist, usually self-described socialist leaders, using the façade of democracy to perpetuate their rule indefinitely, politicizing justice, violating property rights willy-nilly, practicing an assortment of crackpot economic experiments mainly linked by a disdain for capitalism, thriving on virulent and vocal hostility toward the United States, and consorting actively with all the world’s malefactors—from Iran’s Ahmadinejad to Libya’s Gaddafi.

To hear the Obama Administration talk about our Hemispheric neighborhood, none of this is happening.  Perhaps they’ve adopted as their anthem that old Depression-era song (ironically, very apposite for the economic times over which they preside): “Look for the Silver Lining.”  Or perhaps they imagine that “wishing will make it so”; that ignoring these malign developments in our neighborhood will make them wither and go away.  Or maybe they simply seek to deny Latin America’s malefactors the “oxygen” of US attention and criticism, which they’ll simply use to try to whip up their loyalists and tighten their grip on power.  But whatever the motive, it’s perfectly plain that the Obama Administration has absolutely no idea of what to do about these hostile, anti-American regimes in our neighborhood.  And, even if it did, it is manifestly unprepared to do anything concrete about them.

And so, if Obama plans further forays southward during the remainder of his term, he’ll confront an ever narrowing gyre for his travels in what should otherwise be a Western Hemisphere of friends and neighbors.