One year after taking office, President Obama has yet to usher in the new dawn in relations with Latin America he talked about during his campaign. It was a huge promise, given his predecessor’s visits to the region, free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, the newly created Millennium Challenge Account directing more effective aid to countries there, the Merida Initiative for fighting drugs in Mexico, and the continuing success of the Clinton-era Plan Colombia.
Thus far, the Administration’s involvement with the Americas has been more reactive than proactive, dominated as it has been by a fuzzy strategic vision, unplanned events, obstructionists in Congress, and resource constraints.
Early in the new Administration, the White House made it clear it would not push Congress to approve the trade agreements Bush signed with Colombia and Panama, thereby rebuffing advances from two traditional friends and weakening economic relations further.
Obama’s softer approach toward anti-American regimes in the region did little to bring relief to the millions of Cubans still living under communist tyranny or to advance democracy and the rule of law in countries like Venezuela. By comparison, the Administration’s unexpectedly harsh approach to Hondurans who sought to protect their constitutional democracy when their President tried to conduct an illegal referendum was surprising. The Administration had hastily joined the likes of Hugo Chávez and Raul Castro demanding his reinstatement. And it was very slow to recognize the democratic and constitutional elections to replace Zelaya on November 29th.
Equally confusing for those who’ve worked for human rights and freedoms in the region is the Administration’s ambivalence to inroads that Iran, China, and Russia are making there, leading pundits to once more proclaim the last rites for the Monroe Doctrine. Add to this the Administration’s lackluster approach to Mexico’s problems, including its 6 percent economic contraction and its increasingly brutal drug violence, and its no wonder many Americans are more jittery about our southern flank.
The horrific earthquake in Haiti on January 12th ended Obama’s first year of engagement in Latin America on a somber note. The humanitarian response thus far by Americans and by the Administration demonstrates our capacity for compassion and action. But fixing Haiti will require more long-term commitment, and bold departures from the traditional forms of development assistance and governance that have failed that country so miserably.
Regaining America’s historic position of leadership in the Americas will not be easy. The President must focus his strategy this next year on activities that not only address core U.S. interests, such as expanding trade, reducing corruption, and attracting investment to create jobs on both sides of our border. He must also focus on ways to help the people of Latin America strengthen their democratic institutions; and ways to achieve closer cooperation in our fight against international crime, drugs, and terrorism.