Barack Obama heads to Latin America tomorrow, bringing with him little more than a winning smile and the hope that the afterglow of his election, which Latin Americans celebrated with great cheer, still warms.
The trip is meant to show that his administration has not let crises, domestic and foreign, prevent a proactive engagement with the region. In reality, Obama will be playing catch-up, trying to slow down China’s inroads into what used to be the United States’s backyard, shore up an alternative to the so-called “bad left” countries of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and sometimes Ecuador and Argentina, and win back Brazil. With its $6 trillion economy, Brazil has helped lead what Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa recently called the “second and definitive independence” of Latin America, opposing Washington on issues ranging from climate change to trade, Palestine to Honduras.
Let’s recap. Promising a new focus on Latin America is as expected of presidential candidates as kissing babies, yet many did think Obama would be different. At the time of his election, Latin America was governed by presidents who each represented a different progressive tradition—liberation theology (Paraguay’s Lugo), trade unionism (Brazil’s Lula), peasant and indigenous organizing (Bolivia’s Morales), feminism (Chile’s Bachelet), social democratic economics (Ecuador’s Correa) and even military populism (Venezuela’s Chávez)—and these leaders hoped to induct Obama into the pantheon, seeing him as a fulfillment of the US civil rights movement.
Having been early critics of the militarism (most Latin American countries opposed the “War on Terror” broadly and the invasion of Iraq in particular) and extreme neoliberalism that crashed the United States, they believed he would help them create a new hemispheric framework, leaving behind the old failed orthodoxies and finding a way to cooperatively deal with transnational problems like poverty, inequality, crime, migration and climate change. At the very least, they thought he would finally end the US cold war against Cuba.
But despite getting off to a good start at the Summit of the Americas shortly after his inauguration, Obama has largely disappointed. His administration’s shameful legitimizing of the June 2009 Honduran coup was a symbolic turning point, but the disenchantment has been widespread. An expected alliance with Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva didn’t pan out; immigration reform is off the table, as is a renewal of the assault rifles ban that might stem the flow of the weapons into Mexico; the United States refuses to lower its multibillion-dollar subsidy and tariff program that floats corporate giants like ADM and Monsanto; Cuba remains a pariah, if only in Washington’s eyes.
As Obama quickly learned, obstacles to an effective hemispheric diplomacy were not to be found in the “bad left" countries but much closer to home: it’s the NRA, the anti-Castro Cuban lobby, agro-industry, anti-Latino jingoism, as well as the State and Commerce departments (along with the Office of the US Trade Representative) stuffed with holdovers from the Clinton and Bush administrations, that prevent much-needed movement on any number of issues: migration, Cuba, gun smuggling into Mexico, tariffs (the last Congress renewed a 54 cent tariff on each gallon of imported Brazilian ethanol—so much for “free trade”), and poverty reduction. As a result, Obama succumbed to inertia, carrying on a disastrous war on drugs and pushing an economic agenda as if 2008 (or 2002 in Argentina, the worst recorded economic collapse in history) never happened.
Obama’s itinerary—Brazil, Chile and El Salvador—is instructive. If Washington is to salvage its hemispheric diplomacy, it will only be with the help of Brazil, with its enormous and diversified economy and huge oil reserves (which seem to double every day). And Obama’s decision to visit Chile and El Salvador can be read as both a bid to show that the United States can work with leaders across the political spectrum and an attempt to keep that spectrum narrow, restricted to a reformed right (à la Chile’s Sebastián Piñera) and a non-threatening, contained left (El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes).
In the coming days, I’ll be following Obama’s Latin American tour here on The Notion. One thing that might signal that his visit is more than fluff would be an announcement, while in Brazil, that he supports that country’s effort to obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Such an announcement would indicate that Washington has finally accommodated itself to the new Latin America—and to the realization that if it hopes to stem the hemorrhaging of its influence it needs to recognize Brazil as a partner, and stop getting miffed every time Brasilia points out the gap between US rhetoric and action (in, among other places, Honduras, for example).
We’ll see. But Obama’s ability, or desire, to overcome the status quo is doubtful. The last thing many at Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon want is to give Brazil a bigger bully pulpit to rally what used to be called the third world. Recently, at a press conference held during a trip to Beijing—underscoring the new South-South axis shaping up—Brazil’s foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, reiterated his country's opposition to the militarization of the crisis in Libya, joining Venezuela and South Africa in a call to find a negotiated solution and to oppose any no-fly zone that wasn’t fully in compliance with the UN Charter and endorsed by the full Security Council. Brazil restated that position a few days later, in a joint statement with India and South Africa.
And that Obama’s whole trip would have been scuttled had Republicans made good on their threats to shut down the government underscores how domestic involution has crippled US diplomacy—imagine Congress preventing Ronald Reagan from touring Latin America over Big Bird. If that had happened, Washington might as well have tossed the keys to the region to China and called it a day.