Another missed opportunity

Obama in Latin America

31 March 2011

Obama's trip to Latin America: about gaining economic advantages, ignoring historical and recent diplomatic interferences and strategically placed critisism.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s most audacious phrase during his trip to Latin America that ended this week was "We are all Americans. Todos somos Americanos." The phrase seemed designed to provoke rants from the right wing in the United States. But in fact, the right wing and the mainstream media largely overlooked Obama's tour.

Obama spoke live from Santiago, Chile on CNN on Monday. The network interrupted the transmission to start a discussion on why Obama wasn’t in the United States demonstrating he is in charge of the military intervention in Libya. Indeed, the events in Libya overshadowed all of Obama’s tour in Latin America, where the president had very few newsworthy deliverables for the countries he visited.

What might have been a high-profile trip heralding a new U.S. partnership with Latin America based on equity and mutual interests turned out to confirm the same old top-down approach to north-south relations.

Dealing with the Past

In his speech in Santiago, Obama praised Chile’s transition from dictatorship to democracy and how "virtually all the people of Latin America have gone from living under dictatorships to living in democracies." What Obama failed to mention was U.S. support for those dictatorships. In fact, when asked by a journalist if the United States would ask for forgiveness for its support to Pinochet’s coup in the 1973, Obama used the famous "we shouldn’t be trapped by our history" phrase and suggested that his government "would consider any requests for information as Chile seeks a truthful record of that period.

...failed to mention that the perpetrators of the crime were trained in the School of the Americas (SOA).

In San Salvador, when he visited Archbishop Oscar Romero’s tomb, two days before the 31st anniversary of his assassination, Obama failed to mention that the perpetrators of the crime were trained in the School of the Americas (SOA). Now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, this school remains open despite criticisms by the countless family members of victims.

In referring to Honduras, Obama hailed the fact that “the nations of the hemisphere unanimously invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter, helping to lay the foundations for the return to the rule of law,” after the 2009 coup that “threatened democratic progress,” while ignoring how several countries in South America, including Brazil, still do not recognize the current government of Pepe Lobo put into power by illegitimate and fraudulent U.S.-backed elections

Obama chose carefully which countries to praise: "Across the region, we see vibrant democracies, from Mexico to Chile to Costa Rica. We’ve seen historic peaceful transfers of power, from El Salvador to Uruguay to Paraguay." He was also selective about his targets of criticism, especially Cuba. “Let’s never waver in our support for the rights of people to determine their own future -- and yes, that includes the people of Cuba," he said. This attack is especially ill-timed given Obama´s clear failure to close the U.S. Guantanamo base – a symbol of an ongoing violation of basic human rights – as he promised he would do during his first year of government.

Nevertheless, apart from indirect attacks like "some leaders who cling to bankrupt ideologies to justify their own power," Obama tried not to stir up too much confrontation. After all, regional integration efforts are advancing at a great pace, including the passing of the constitution of the Union of South American Nations just last week, and Obama knew that sowing discord publicly among allies could have negative consequences.

Business as Usual

Aside from rhetoric, Obama´s tour was more centered on an economic agenda and trying to regain the influence in the region that has waned with the impressive emergence of Brazil and its bilateral relations with other emerging economies in the globe. Obama travelled to Brazil with his commerce, treasure and energy secretaries to address a U.S. – Brazil business conference that brought hundreds of top executives from both countries. Obama aimed to get the South American powerhouse to open up to U.S. exports and to cooperate together on development plans in other countries in the region. He also lobbied hard for Brazil to choose the Boeing F-18 fighter jet instead of its French and Swedish competitors.

Obama knew that sowing discord publicly among allies could have negative consequences.

In the end, however, Obama disappointed Brazilians and their new president Dilma Rousseff for not supporting Brazil’s wishes to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, Rousseff didn’t hesitate to complain of U.S. protectionism for Brazilian products, and she sent signals that Brazil is not willing to advance to a bilateral free trade or “taxation” agreement separate from its southern cone allies in the Mercosur pact.

In Chile, presidents Obama and Pinera announced a memorandum of understanding "on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy" despite the protests of thousands in the streets expressing their profound concerns about, among other things, safety arising from the nuclear disaster in Japan.

And in El Salvador Obama declared his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform in the United States but blamed the impasse on the lack of support from the Republicans in Congress. Obama and Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes announced a set of confusingly overlapping initiatives for “prosperity,” with euphemistic labels like Partnership for Growth, Cross Roads Partnership, and New Pathways to Prosperity.

...repackaging the Central American Regional Security Initiative based on extending the Merida Initiative in Mexico that has failed to curb drug cartels and has produced more than 35,000 deaths since 2006.

However as Funes himself explained, these are basically aimed at boosting "economic predictability," increase “trust with investors,” and “send a message to investors that they can invest in El Salvador.” Obama also announced $200 million for a new Central American Citizen's Security Partnership, which only appears to be repackaging the Central American Regional Security Initiative based on extending the Merida Initiative in Mexico that has failed to curb drug cartels and has produced more than 35,000 deaths since 2006.

No Mention of CAFTA?

In his visit to El Salvador, the president didn't once mention the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in his public speeches, despite the negative impacts it has already had on the well-being of the Salvadoran population. Before Obama’s departure I handed to members of his administration a letter to the president signed by more than 140 environmental, religious, and human rights organizations asking him to "publicly state your support for revisions to the existing CAFTA text so as to eliminate the investor-state enforcement mechanism that provides rights for foreign investors to sue sovereign governments." The letter also asks him to state his support during the trip for El Salvador’s request to have dismissed a pending $100 million CAFTA investor-state arbitration suit filed by a Canadian mining company, Pacific Rim, that challenges Salvadoran environmental and safety policies relating to metals mining concessions. Obama received a similar letter from 19 House Democrats.

...he has backpedaled on his campaign promises to work to reform NAFTA and CAFTA and seek trade with justice.

Obama’s New Partnership for the Americas campaign document stated that "Obama will use trade agreements to spread good labor and environmental standards around the world and stand firm against agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement that fail to live up to those important benchmarks." Obama’s failure to even mention CAFTA during this visit to El Salvador and the announcement in Chile that his administration continues pursuing the Trans Pacific Partnership of which Peru and Chile are part and to "move forward on trade agreements with Panama and Colombia" is a clear sign of how much he has backpedaled on his campaign promises to work to reform NAFTA and CAFTA and seek trade with justice.

In spite of catchy new phrases for cooperation and engagement with Latin America and rhetoric about the importance of equal partnerships with the countries in the region, Obama’s trip to Latin America promised more of the same -- más de lo mismo -- for the countries of the region, which in the end tastes like the imperialism of the past.

About the authors

Manuel Perez Rocha

Manuel Perez Rocha is an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, and regular contributor to TNI's Alternative Regionalisms programme who has been associated with TNI since 1996 when he began work on EU-Latin America relations.

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