WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
16 Mar 2011 | Commentary | News

Failure to Open “New Chapter of Engagement” Will Dog President Obama on Visit to Latin America

When President Obama embarks on his trip to Latin America this week, he will encounter a very different political environment than he found at the Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago, where Latin American leaders practically tripped over each other to shake his hand and pose for the proverbial photo op. At the Summit, which took place just months after he took office, Obama promised an “era of equal partnership” and “a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained through my administration.” Yet the good will on display in Port-of-Spain has largely dissipated among the grumblings about the lack of any new U.S. policy toward the region and the continued predominance of U.S. unilateralism over multilateralism.

Obama travels to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador from March 19 to 23. Perhaps no country better represents the changing regional dynamics than Brazil, the hemisphere’s new regional powerhouse. Brazil’s rise in a way parallels the demise of U.S. influence in the region. Numerous factors have contributed to the United States’ waning influence, including the emergence of more progressive governments that are less inclined to follow the dictates of Washington, the creation of regional bodies such as UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations), frustration over the U.S. disregard for the impact of its own economic crisis on its neighbors, and rapidly decreasing levels of U.S. economic assistance. As noted by WOLA’s Adam Isacson, “President Obama’s trip will underscore that the era of unquestioned U.S. leadership has ended.”

Despite Obama’s declarations in Trinidad and Tobago, U.S. policy toward the region has remained on auto-pilot; indeed, at times it seems as if the previous Bush administration is still calling the shots. Take, for example, the U.S.-Colombia agreement on U.S. access to seven military bases in Colombia. Not only did Obama administration officials fail to live up to promises to engage more constructively with the region by consulting prior to acting, they failed to reconsider the Bush era plans even after hearing a regional outcry about the destabilizing effect of the growing U.S. military presence in the region. (It was the Colombian Constitutional Court that ultimately derailed the base agreement, though with little impact on the already established U.S. military presence on the Colombian bases.) But perhaps no damage to regional relations was greater than that caused by the U.S. shifting position on the overthrow of the Zelaya government in Honduras. While initially vocal in condemning the coup d’état, the Obama Administration failed to follow-up with strong action, save canceling a couple dozen visas. Within months, the administration reversed course from condemning the coup to supporting an electoral path as a the solution to the crisis, sending a clear message to the rest of the hemisphere that even in this day and age, the U.S. government will turn a blind eye to the ouster of a civilian elected government.

One Latin American Ambassador recently complained of “the incomprehensible political atmosphere in Washington,” where, on the one hand, the executive branch seems to have no political will to move any new initiatives forward, and on the other, a stalemate in congress precludes any meaningful attention to the region. And what attention there is towards the region is more often than not negative, with Members of Congress ranting against the evils of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and the like.

Nonetheless, Obama’s first official visit to the region provides an opportunity to lay out a new course for regional relations for the second half of his presidency – one based on his promises of equal partnership and multilateralism. Although energy and trade issues are likely to dominate the bilateral talks on his first two stops, in Brazil, President Obama should also acknowledge the significant gains made in that country in reducing poverty over the last decade – and he should explore what the United States can learn from that experience for reducing poverty in our own country. 

In Chile, Obama should acknowledge the advances made in dealing with the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship and holding human rights violators accountable. And to help the process move forward, the U.S. government should respond to requests for further declassification of U.S. documents to help shed evidence on the human rights atrocities committed during the overthrow of President Salvador Allende and the dictatorship that followed – often with U.S. complicity.

Finally, in going to El Salvador, the President is acknowledging the formal transition of power to the FMLN, the former guerrilla insurgency.  Many would argue that what El Salvador needs most from the United States is comprehensive immigration reform; however, in the absence of that, the issues that will likely dominate the discussions are the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), intended to mitigate the impact of increased drug trafficking through the isthmus, development and the perennial problems in that country of gang violence and citizen security. The President would be wise to avoid discussion of a Plan Central America (modeled after Plan Colombia), as proposed by Porfirio Lobo of Honduras, and instead listen to what the Salvadoran government has to say about its approach to improving citizen security. After years of a failed “mano duro” approach, the Funes government has adopted a new approach based on improved police and judicial performance and comprehensive violence and gang prevention strategies – and for the first time in years, the homicide rate is falling. Again, there is much the U.S. can learn from this recent experience in El Salvador for confronting gang-related violence in the United States.

In conclusion, on his trip to Latin America, Obama will encounter a region in which countries are no longer afraid to stand up to the U.S. government and in which the United States no longer calls the shots. President Obama should not go to preach, as so many U.S. presidents have done in the past, but to listen.

(This originally appeared in 'Foreign Policy in Focus' on March 15, 2011)