Obama isn’t the first US president to seek a solution to domestic crisis by pushing for open markets, but his administration might be the first to so candidly admit that is what it is doing.
According to Michael Froman, Obama’s national security adviser for international economic affairs, “This trip fundamentally is about the US recovery, US exports and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States.” It’s a startlingly honest admission that, unable to overcome domestic obstacles (that is, the cult of austerity that enthralls Republicans and Democrats alike) to investment and stimulus, the United States is looking abroad for relief. Obama is making the case that more globalized trade—including the pending Colombian Free Trade Agreement—will pull the United States out of its slump.
In the past, trade with Latin America did inordinately benefit the United States in all sorts of ways, underwriting its cold war Keynesian and post–cold war neoliberal economies. Today, though, things are different and it’s unlikely that more “free trade” with Latin America would heal what ails the United States.
Setting that point aside, the very same set of obstacles that blocks Obama at home makes it impossible—as I’ve noted here earlier—for him to offer serious concessions in exchange for Brazil’s help, particularly when it comes to the sticky issue of ethanol tariffs, subsidies and intellectual property rights. There was goodwill and great photo ops of the first family’s trip to Brazil, especially to Rio’s City of God favela. It was, as many noted, highly symbolic for the first African-American US president to visit the country with the largest African population outside of Africa (especially since Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, did once ask Brazil’s president, “Do you have blacks, too?”—which prompted Conde Rice to give her boss a quick tutorial in the history of New World slavery).
But it was short on substance. Brazil’s new president Dilma Rousseff was friendly and “warm,” as expected, but she did criticize the United States’s shameless ability to preach “free trade” while practicing protectionism. And Brazil was extremely disappointed that Obama, despite indicating that Washington was ready to deal with Brazil as an equal, did not endorse its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.