It’s Time for Obama to Deliver on Promises to Latin America

When President Obama took part of the Summit of Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009, he made a very positive first impression. His rhetoric was impeccable. He used the language of partnership and spoke about treating his Latin American neighbors as equals. But little action has taken place on the promises Obama made during the summit. Now is the time for him to deliver.

During his first official trip to Latin America, President Obama will visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. In Brazil, economic interests will dominate the agenda, at least in the private conversations. The U.S. wants to have significant engagement in Brazil, especially when it comes to infrastructure projects, oil development, and the business and trade opportunities that come from Brazil’s expanding middle class. Defense sector purchases in this emerging power are another big ticket item for U.S. commercial interests. Brazil wants greater access for its biofuels in the U.S. market — not just through lower tariffs but also in terms of joint research that can expand it uses beyond automobiles and into aircrafts.

However, in the public portions of Obama’s visit, trade will not be the dominant theme. President Obama’s speech at the Cinelandia square in downtown Rio will highlight the “twin emergence”: the emergence of Brazil as a global powerhouse and the emergence of Brazil’s middle class as a leading economic and political force. President Obama will do well by praising the leadership of Brazil’s past two presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.

The visit to Chile will lay out the vision of what a new engagement with Latin America could look like. Chile is ahead of the rest of Latin America in terms of economic development and it certainly wants to be ahead in initiatives with the United States. Chileans want to start a conversation about ending their visa requirements to visit the U.S. For its own economic security, Chile needs access to better technologies on renewable energy through cooperation with the United States. Research in these areas is costly and requires support from the U.S. Chile also needs to engage in an aggressive campaign to make English widely spoken and to raise the quality of its education, which still ranks poorly relative to other members of the OECD, a developed world club that Chile joined two years ago.

In El Salvador, there are growing problems associated with organized crime and the war on drugs. Getting more support from the U.S. is a top priority, not just for this country but for all others in Central America— a region that can potentially become much more unstable than Mexico.

By visiting President Funes of El Salvador, President Obama is signaling is that U.S. can have a fine working relationship with countries run by parties from the left, with and ambitious agenda for social inclusion. In doing so, the U.S. also isolates Hugo Chavez, whose regime is falling apart by not delivering any concrete and lasting results in redistribution and equality of opportunity.

The respective free trade agreements between the U.S. and Colombia and Panama are the most visible items in the hemispheric agenda. However, they are taking a backseat during this trip. This is regrettable because these two countries negotiated their trade deals in good faith and have made good all the adjustments and provisions required by the U.S. government to move the agreements forward. The Obama administration should push through these pending agreements and bring them to the floor of Congress for a vote. Otherwise, Latin Americans will be suspicious of U.S. rhetoric on its commitment to initiatives that benefit the region but naturally involve some political costs in the U.S. domestically.