In Praise of Latin America’s Irrelevance

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

February 28, 2009

Barack Obama’s election has been greeted with enthusiasm in Latin America for slightly baffling reasons. Nothing that the president has said suggests a dramatic change in hemispheric relations. Moreover, save for very specific aspects, such a turnaround is not urgent at all.

Latin America’s turn under the spotlight faded long ago. And those golden days of the Alliance for Progress will not return any time soon. Nor is it necessary. Latin American irrelevance to U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has been largely positive for the region.

Migration policy stands the best chance of undergoing significant changes. Reform looks possible and desirable for temporary work permits in critical economic areas, increasing the current number of permanent visas, and establishing a clear path to bring 12 million illegal immigrants into the formal economy. None too soon, the model centered on border control—symbolized by the useless border fence—will shift to managing a significant, constant and controlled inflow of immigrants. U.S. workforce growth between now and 2050 will be immigrants and their descendants. In a very literal way, the future U.S. welfare depends on latino immigration.

Obama’s trade agenda will be modest. Given the congressional composition, the negotiation of new free trade agreements looks extremely unlikely and that’s unfortunate. Specifically, any decision by the Obama Administration to block the ratification of trade agreements with Panama and Colombia would be a serious mistake that would damage American credibility and send a sharp message about what awaits even the most steadfast U.S. allies.

On other issues the situation is less clear. Sadly, it seems doubtful that Obama will eliminate, any time soon, the tariffs on ethanol imports, which harm Brazil and exert pressure on food prices worldwide. On the matter of illicit drugs, the current policy of interdiction will likely continue with the eradication of illicit crops and increasing militarization. We can hope, nonetheless, that Obama will realize that the status quo is doomed to failure and end the current prohibition on alternative policies.

Finally, there is the relationship with Cuba and Venezuela. In the case of Cuba, U.S. restrictions on travel and remittances will probably be lifted. The end of the self-defeating U.S. embargo will have to wait, almost inevitably, for an eventual second Obama term, when Florida’s electoral votes are no longer at stake for the president. As for Venezuela, if he is wise, Obama will simply do nothing. His election deprives President Hugo Chávez of a rhetorical weapon—Bush-bashing— that is important to mobilize his political base. Increasingly erratic and impoverished, the Chávez regime will be taken care of, sooner or later, by the Venezuelan electorate.

Those who expect President Obama to have a favorite place in his foreign policy would do well to think twice. Ultimately, the past few years of relative U.S. neglect of Latin America have not been that bad for the region. Given the tumultuous past of U.S.-Latin American relations, being irrelevant, as opposed to smothered with attention, may not be a bad deal after all.