When President Obama travels to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador from March 19th to 23rd, he will encounter a vastly different region than the one his predecessors visited. A generation ago, the region was a bit like a solar system, its countries revolving tightly around the “sun” of U.S. political, economic and military power. Today, that power is diminished. The “planets” are now determining their own independent orbits, some are becoming “suns” in their own right, and other “stars” (China, India, Europe) are exerting more gravitational pull.
Though Latin Americans’ perceptions of the United States have improved since a low point during the Bush administration, our country is no longer the central player in the economic lives of most Latin American countries, either through trade or aid. As a result, it carries much less political weight. Though it is not his intention, President Obama’s trip will underscore that the era of unquestioned U.S. leadership has ended, as the President himself acknowledged at the 2009 Summit of the Americas, when he emphasized building an “equal partnership” with the region’s states.
In this new reality, the White House has made an astute choice of countries to visit. Each carries great symbolic value.
• In Brazil, President Obama’s discussions with President Dilma Rousseff will highlight the global power and influence of South America’s rapidly growing giant. It may also mark a notable improvement in the tone of U.S. relations with Rousseff’s government, which assumed power in January.
• In both Brazil and Chile, President Obama will recognize the success of long, difficult transitions from military dictatorship to democracy. Both countries are still trying to uncover the truth about the mass human rights abuses committed before those transitions began, and to hold the worst abusers accountable. The President would do well to acknowledge these important efforts.
• In El Salvador, the President will be commemorating a successful transition from all-out civil war to stable peace, with a democracy so healthy that, following its 2009 elections, it underwent a smooth transition of power to the opposition: the party of the former guerrilla insurgency.
President Obama’s trip is also important for what it is not “about.” This is not a visit driven by U.S. threat perceptions. Except for where it touches discussions of public security and organized crime, drugs — and the U.S. “war” on them — are not on the agenda. Nor should we expect much discussion of terrorism, Iran or even Venezuela. The focus on opportunities instead of threats is very welcome.
Not all of the messages will be positive, however. In a time of reduced power and deep budget cuts, President Obama will be arriving largely empty-handed. There is relatively little new economic aid to offer; much of what the Administration can propose is re-programming to meet priority needs, improved coordination, and technical assistance. These are important, but not a substitute for new assistance and new initiatives. Not only can we expect few offers of new economic aid, we can expect few commitments to spend substantial political capital. The administration, though supportive, is unlikely to make a major political commitment to help Latin America address what, according to opinion polls throughout the region, are its main concerns: public security, unemployment, weak institutions, and migration.
While crime and violence will be mentioned in Brazil and El Salvador, the most President Obama is likely to offer is a commitment to maintain modest existing levels of assistance for police and judicial institution-building. On the economy and jobs, the President will visit Chile and Brazil, whose growth rates dwarf our own. In his visit to El Salvador, whose economy is only beginning to recover from the financial crisis that hit the United States, the President is likely to support targeted anti-poverty efforts, but no major new initiatives. Strengthening institutions requires supporting reformers both in government and civil society, including human rights defenders and leaders of unions and social movements — something on which the U.S. record is mixed. On migration — a third-rail political issue in today’s Washington — we can expect little. (El Salvador seeks a long-term resolution of the status of the two hundred thousand Salvadorans still here on a “temporary protected” basis, but no immediate solution is at hand.) We will hear words like “partnership” and “engagement” used quite heavily and repeatedly in the course of this trip. This is certainly the right tone to take. But those words have little meaning, though, if they don’t come with a commitment to expend resources — both political and financial — to help our “partners” address their own concerns, even if it occasionally displeases a domestic political constituency. True partners are also willing to admit when their policies are not working, rather than forge blindly ahead as we have done in Cuba, the drug war, our trade policy and elsewhere. Latin America no longer revolves around the U.S. “sun,” and our policy toward the region can no longer act as though it does. Let’s hope that the tone and content of the President’s visit reflect that.