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Obama and the Hemispheric Partnership: A Missed Opportunity?

President Obama’s popularity in Latin America is unprecedented for a U.S. leader. Recent polls show that Latin Americans have a very favorable opinion of him, comparable to the region’s most popular leaders, like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet of Chile. Many Latin Americans identify themselves with Obama’s diverse ethnic and cultural background. To many, he embodies the success that is so elusive in Latin America, a region where lack of social mobility and discrimination remain the norm. Even Hugo Chavez, whose inflamed anti-American rhetoric is an essential part of his political speech, is careful when mentioning President Obama directly.

In April 2009, only three months after the inauguration, President Obama attended the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. He shared his vision of a new relationship, based on respect and equal treatment. He praised the economic and social progress that many countries have achieved during the last decade. The idea of a partnership, focusing on key areas of common interest such as energy, gained traction and generated high expectations. But it is not only what he said, but also how he listened to others what made the difference. His demeanor was as important as his words.

Prior to his arrival in Port of Spain, he made a tactical stop in Mexico, where he spoke of a more balanced approach to the drug problem. Putting drug consumption at the center and not in the sidelines is the right thing to do. The strategies that mainly focus on the supply side have not been all that effective, and the costs are unsustainable. Although refraining from promising new legislation on the topic, President Obama endorsed the need to adopt more effective ways to control the smuggling of weapons from the U.S. to Mexico.

These were the right messages, not just to Mexico but to all other countries struggling with drug-trafficking and organized crime. A cabinet-level delegation, led by Secretary Clinton, had visited Mexico earlier, voicing the same message and providing renewed support to President Calderon and his efforts to fight crime by strengthening the security and judicial apparatus of the Mexican state. Stating these views before the Summit enabled the U.S. administration to focus on more constructive aspects of the hemispheric agenda.

But after a great start, both in terms of style and substance, the U.S.-Latin American partnership has lost momentum. The natural next step –articulating this new vision into a concrete working agenda- did not take place. Things fell into a vacuum in part because the administration faced hostility from the Republican Party in the confirmation of the key senior officials in charge of leading the effort. Some say that problems in Afghanistan and Iraq leave little attention span for Latin America, at least at a senior level. But it is not just that.

The truth is that if the Obama administration wants to upgrade its relationship with Latin America, it has to talk about issues it has tried to avoid, such as trade. No one really knows what the Department of Commerce and the USTR think about the future hemispheric integration. Do they support the expansion of free trade agreements? Do they have an alternative vision? In this, the administration has been notably silent. More has been said than done in other key areas for the region, such as the development of joint initiatives to increase the production of renewable energy.  Finally, the Latin American nations are united around the goal of increasing the capacity of the Inter-American Development Bank to provide loans to the region, but that requires extra capital, which the U.S. has been reluctant to approve, contrary to all other countries in the hemisphere.

One year is a short amount of time for any new president - especially when the objective is changing the direction of a thorny relationship.  However, if the Obama administration does not act soon, it may completely fail to capitalize this unique opportunity.

  • Mauricio Cárdenas is a senior fellow and director of the Latin American Initiative. Formerly minister of Economic Development and Transportation, and director of National Planning of Colombia, his research focuses on international and development economics.