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Obama in Latin America: Flipping the ‘On’ Switch

Friday, March 18, 2011

President Obama’s upcoming trip to Latin America could be a first step toward salvaging soured relations with key friends.

President Obama’s trip beginning this week to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador could be a first step toward salvaging a Latin America policy that has left most of the region disappointed, soured relations with key friends, and failed to acknowledge the challenges from Iran and China in our own neighborhood. After two years, the president does not need to hit the “reset” button—he has to flip the “on” switch.

The president raised expectations among his counterparts at an April 2009 Summit of the Americas, at which he launched “a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration.” Most of the leaders were enthusiastic and hopeful about the new president’s promise of “an equal partnership.” Two years later, rather than engagement, the administration has failed to undertake a single new initiative with the region. And relations with the leading nations of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico—which had grown extraordinarily constructive under President Bush—have soured significantly.

Two years later, rather than engagement, the administration has failed to undertake a single new initiative with the region.

The positive momentum in U.S.-Brazilian relations, owing to Bush’s deft personal diplomacy with Brazil’s labor leader president, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, has stalled. In the waning days of Lula’s term last year, Brazil imposed trade sanctions over U.S. cotton subsidies and almost scuttled the U.S. push for Iran sanctions.

A trade agreement with Colombia—the region’s oldest democracy, economic leader, and key anti-drug ally—has languished since House Democrats shelved the accord three years ago. The administration’s cool treatment of Colombia has left new president Juan Manuel Santos seeking friendships elsewhere, even calling Venezuela’s anti-American caudillo (strongman) Hugo Chávez “my new best friend.” This stalled trade deal sends a message of U.S. indifference, or worse, to the entire region.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón visited Washington last week, using unusually harsh language to underscore his frustration with the administration’s clumsy or lackluster anti-drug cooperation, which has undermined Calderón as he fights to save his country from drug gangsters. President Bush left office after winning congressional funding for a $1 billion anti-drug package for Mexico, but most of that aid remains unspent today.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón used unusually harsh language to underscore his frustration with the administration’s clumsy or lackluster anti-drug cooperation.

Latin America is moving ahead without the United States. Never intertwined with the “sophisticated” banking practices that proved so perilous in the 2008-2009 financial meltdown, economies in the region have ridden out the global crisis and are logging substantial growth rates. With the exception of several countries trapped in a populist whirlwind, most of the region is pushing forward on a market-oriented reform agenda that should help them sustain growth and pull millions out of poverty. It is never too late for Washington to get off the bench to advance U.S. economic and security interests.

In his upcoming trip, President Obama will meet with Brazil’s newly elected, first woman president, Dilma Rousseff. He has an opportunity to acknowledge Brazil as a genuine economic partner and powerhouse and to establish a rapport with Rousseff to overcome the “zero-sum” formula that dominates her country’s traditional diplomacy toward the United States. As capital markets begin to separate Brazil from the laggards among the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), that South American giant will pick up even greater momentum. The president’s trip can build bridges with Brazil to ensure that U.S. companies can share in that success story.

President Obama has an opportunity to acknowledge Brazil as a genuine economic partner and powerhouse.

There is also good news on the trade front that could produce a rare bipartisan achievement. Although President Obama has promised repeatedly to advance pending trade accords with Colombia and Panama, it is apparent that he will invest political capital in the South Korea agreement but prefers not to offend labor unions that have criticized Colombia’s labor record. Led by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Michigan), Republicans have rallied 67 freshman members, including Tea Party followers, to insist that agreements with Colombia and Panama be considered along with the South Korea deal. Citing the loss of jobs, Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana, respected ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, upped the ante dramatically by vowing to block the South Korea accord if the Latin American agreements are not also presented by the White House for a congressional vote. In short, President Obama can count on Republican help as he relaunches our relations with the region in deed as well as word.

One area in grave need of presidential attention is the menace of a deep and broad Venezuela-Iran relationship. Iran uses Venezuela as a platform to project its influence and activities in the Americas (including those of allied terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.), to evade international sanctions, mine uranium and other strategic minerals, and obtain nuclear expertise—all with the aim of aiding its illegal nuclear program and threatening U.S. and international security. Before the United States can rally our neighbors to meet this threat, President Obama has to admit that it exists.

The Obama administration clearly emphasizes “partnership” over “leadership.” Either one may suffice. Neither one will not.

Roger F. Noriega was ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001 to 2003 and assistant secretary of State from 2003 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC.

FURTHER READING: Noriega has also explained “How Obama Can Make Cuba Freer, Faster,” uncovered “The WikiLeaker’s Friends in Latin America,” and discussed “Chávez the Cocaine Capo?” He offers a “Latin American Action Agenda for the New Congress,” outlines “Chávez's Secret Nuclear Program,” and reveals “What Chávez Wants with Us.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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