Kerry Visits the Neighborhood – Colombia and Brazil

Press reports of Secretary of State Kerry’s description of the Western Hemisphere as “our backyard” overlooked the next words, “[our] neighborhood … I think there are relationships we could improve.” [1] The focus on “our backyard” caused President Evo Morales to announce on May 1, 2013 that he was expelling the USAID mission from Bolivia because, among other accusations, it reminded hemispheric leaders of U.S. relations toward the hemisphere during the Cold War.

Now in the 21st century, we should focus on Kerry’s use of the word “neighborhood” and his efforts as Secretary of State to improve relations. On August 11, he flew to Colombia and from there Kerry flies on to Brazil. It should not be viewed as John Kerry’s first foray into the hemisphere: He has focused on developments in the Western Hemisphere since 1989, when six Jesuit priests were murdered by U.S.-trained government troops in El Salvador. Kerry has a long history of concern for human rights, as well as trade with the hemisphere. This visit confirms his commitment to improve relations, but what tools does he have to make those improvements?

In Colombia, Kerry will focus on the improved security situation and the ongoing peace talks with the FARC. After years in which he concentrated on counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency and their implications for human rights, Kerry can now discuss “’democratic security’ for all Colombians.”[2] He supports the peace talks and considers that they “deserve support.” [3] Kerry is now a fan of Colombia and of President Juan Manuel Santos, who is “doing an amazing job.”[4] Kerry supported the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia which, according to the Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau has resulted in a near doubling of U.S. exports to Colombia from $8.5 billion in 2007 to $16.4 billion in 2012, and more than double increase in the imports from Colombia from $9.4 billion in 2007 to $24.6 billion in 2012. Many of these imports are parts which are later included in U.S. exports of manufactured goods. In short, the last five years have demonstrated the positive impact of free trade and encouraged the development of alternative products for Colombian farmers. Cocaine is no longer the most contentious commodity in U.S.-Colombia trade flows.

In Brazil, Kerry is expected to focus on developing the Strategic Energy Dialogue and strengthening student exchanges. Brazil currently sends over 9,000 students to study in the U.S. under the government’s ‘Science Without Borders’ program. President Dilma Rousseff would like to send 20,000 students to the U.S. alone to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For its part, the U.S. seeks to send 100,000 U.S. students to study in the Western Hemisphere. Another topic is Brazil’s desire to be included within the Visa Waiver Program, which facilitates the movement of tourists and business visitors with most western European nations. Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota considers that Brazil has earned the right to be included in that program. On the U.S. side, concern over the completion of the stadiums, transportation and residential quarters for the forthcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics is related to the willingness of Brazilian citizens to keep relative peace during these important gatherings. This requires that the federal government demonstrate the ability to deliver improved health care and education for its citizens while, at the same time, investing in the massive infrastructure for the games.

The scope of the NSA collection of metadata and Snowden’s declaration that the agency collects information from U.S. allies is a cause of considerable concern in both countries. Once again, it harks back to the hegemonic power and U.S. extensive influence in the days of the Cold War. Kerry will be asked to explain the program, as well as President Obama’s willingness to discuss the broad privacy implications in the warehousing of the metadata. For both U.S. and allied audiences in the hemisphere, citizens are asking to know who listens to whom. Greater comfort on the parameters of the NSA program is needed.

However, the purpose of Kerry’s visit is not purely to answer questions surrounding the NSA. Vice President Biden began that conversation when he called both President Santos of Colombia and President Dilma Rousseff in June. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance that the administration attaches to strong relations with the hemisphere. President Obama visited Mexico and Central America in May, Vice President Biden visited South America and Trinidad and Tobago in June, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Brazil in July. A pattern of commitments by senior U.S. officials has developed. Furthermore, Obama will give Dilma Rousseff a State Visit on October 23, enabling Kerry to discuss preparations for that visit. These are small pieces of bilateral tradecraft with which to weave a wholesome cloth.

The challenge is to avoid this visit from being dominated by the NSA revelations. Kerry carries neither a new strategic initiative nor a new partnership. He holds few, if any deliverables. Therefore, his personal diplomacy must persuade two important hemispheric allies that U.S. is a dependable partner. In the midst of convulsions in the Middle East and the early days of Palestinian talks, Kerry created time to visit the neighborhood where the U.S. is working hard to improve its relationships.

[1] Hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 18, 2013.

[2] Senator John Kerry joined 23 U.S. Senators in a letter to Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, July 26, 2004.

[3] Senator John Kerry statement upon the announcement of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, September 4, 2012;

[4] Confirmation Hearing to be Secretary of State, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 24, 2013.