Obama and the Americas: Promise, Disappointment, Opportunity

August 18, 2010

Incoming U.S. presidents, from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, have often announced a new policy initiative toward Latin America and the Caribbean. But few expected this from Barack Obama. His administration was inheriting too many far more pressing problems. During the presidential campaign, moreover, he had said little about the region beyond suggesting that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) be renegotiated and expressing vague reservations about the pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

Soon after Obama’s inauguration, however, the administration organized high-level visits to Latin America and the Caribbean and announced various initiatives toward the region. Calling for a “new beginning” in U.S.-Cuban relations, it loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban Americans, said it would consider allowing U.S. investment in telecommunications networks with the island, and expressed a willingness to discuss resuming direct mail service to Cuba and to renew bilateral consultations on immigration to the United States. The administration also backed away from Obama’s earlier comments about the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. In April 2009, the president announced that he would press for comprehensive immigration reform, a move that was welcomed throughout the region. He also won praise for his consultative manner and his interest in multilateral cooperation at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009.

In addition to the White House’s preexisting commitment to attend the summit in Trinidad and Tobago, there were two main reasons for the Obama administration’s surprising early attention to the Americas. One was the hope that it could score a quick foreign policy victory: people in the region had widely rejected George W. Bush’s policies, but more because of style — a combination of neglect and arrogance — than because of any deep, substantive conflict. Obama aimed to do better.

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