Shifting the Balance: Obama and the Americas

Shifting the Balance: Obama and the Americas

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In early 2009, at the start of a new administration in Washington, the Brookings Institution Press published The Obama Administration and the Americas: Agenda for Change, offering a roadmap for a fresh approach to U.S. relations with its neighbors. Now, at the midway point of that presidential administration, the editors of that insightful volume follow up with Shifting the Balance: Obama and the Americas, an authoritative and critical look at what President Obama and his team have done in regard to Latin America and the Caribbean, how they have been received in the region, and what steps should be taken in the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815705635
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 01/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 193
File size: 420 KB

About the Author

Abraham F. Lowenthal is professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. Theodore J. Piccone is a senior fellow and deputy director for Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the Club of Madrid. Laurence Whitehead is an official fellow in politics at Nuffield College at the University of Oxford and editor of the Oxford Studies in Democratization series.

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Shifting the Balance

Obama and the Americas


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ISBN: 978-0-8157-0562-8

Chapter One

The Obama Administration and the Americas

Abraham F. Lowenthal

Barack Obama entered the U.S. presidency with a daunting agenda. At home he faced deep economic recession, a near collapse of the country's financial institutions, rising unemployment, decaying infrastructure, a dysfunctional health insurance system, and countless other accumulated problems. Abroad he inherited two costly and unpopular wars, the continuing threat from al Qaeda, dangerous confrontations with North Korea and Iran, strained relations with Russia, multiple challenges from a rising China, the specter of implosion in Pakistan, the festering Israel-Palestine impasse, the looming dangers of climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation—and much more.

Few observers predicted, therefore, that the Obama administration would devote much attention to Latin America and the Caribbean. None of the region's countries poses an imminent threat to U.S. national security. None seems likely to be a source or target of significant international terrorism.

During the campaign, moreover, Senator Obama said little about Latin America. He confined himself to one dedicated speech on the region (to a Cuban American organization in Miami), a proposal to appoint a special ambassador for the Americas, suggestions during the "Rust Belt" primary campaigns that the North American Free Trade Agreement should be renegotiated, and a few statements expressing reservations about the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements pending ratification by the U.S. Senate.

After his election, however, Barack Obama and members of his administration quickly showed interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. As president-elect, Mr. Obama met with only one foreign leader, Felipe Calderón of Mexico. His first foreign visitor to Camp David was Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The new president also soon welcomed Chile's President Michelle Bachelet and Colombia's Álvaro Uribe to Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first meeting with a foreign head of state was with Haiti's President René Préval, and she then pushed successfully for expanded international assistance to Haiti. Vice President Joseph Biden visited Chile and Costa Rica in March. Secretary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all traveled to Mexico by early April 2009, ahead of a trip by President Obama himself. All were notably receptive to Mexican perspectives, and their visits were well received. The new administration also announced initiatives on Cuba, loosening restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans and opening up the possibility of U.S. investment in telecommunications networks with the island. The president himself called for a "new beginning" in U.S.-Cuba relations. The State Department began exploratory conversations with Cuban officials on a potential postal service agreement and resumed long-suspended bilateral consultations on migration.

No concrete actions were taken to approve the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, but administration officials quickly backed away from Mr. Obama's earlier skeptical posture. The president's announcement that he would press for comprehensive immigration reform was greeted warmly in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and several South American countries. And President Obama's participation in April 2009 at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, won praise throughout the Americas for his consultative manner and his expressed interest in multilateral cooperation.

Why did the Obama administration take a strong initial interest in Latin America and the Caribbean? What was the content and what were the sources of its approaches? Are the Obama administration's policies in the Western Hemisphere likely to take fuller shape, be implemented, and endure? Or will they be attenuated or even abandoned, as has often happened to U.S. policy initiatives toward Latin America in the past? What can and should the Obama administration do to improve U.S. policies toward and relations with Latin America and the Caribbean in the years ahead?

Putting Latin America on the U.S. Agenda

The main reason for the Obama administration's early engagement with Latin America was the new team's perception that even though the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean raise no urgent issues for the United States, some of them, especially Mexico, are increasingly important to America's future. This perception was driven home early by Mexico's deepening problems, marked by a surge in homicides and confrontations between the Mexican government and the narcotics cartels, some of them near the U.S. border. Mexico's abrupt economic downturn, a consequence of the U.S. crisis— exacerbated by the outbreak of the H1N1 virus—compounded a sense of urgency. The Obama administration found itself faced with a choice: plan emergency efforts to quarantine the United States from troubles in Mexico, or devise a more effective partnership with Mexico in order to help deal with that country's problems and their implications for the United States.

Growing concern about Mexico helped concentrate minds in Washington. The administration's commitment to attend the Trinidad and Tobago summit was a preexisting reason to pay attention to Latin America. Doing so was reinforced by a calculation that a change in U.S. attitudes and rhetoric would be welcomed in the region and could therefore produce a quick foreign policy success.

In focusing on Mexico and preparing for the summit, U.S. policymakers recognized that Latin America matters to the United States today for four main reasons:

First, the borders between the United States and its southern neighbors have blurred because of massive and sustained migration and growing economic integration. It is projected that growth in the size of the U.S. labor force from now until 2050 will be entirely due to immigrants and their descendants, mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean. This demographic and economic interdependence has given rise to complex issues that have both international and domestic facets—the so-called "intermestic" questions—including narcotics, human and arms trafficking, health care, immigrants' remittances, driver's licenses, youth gangs, portable retirement pensions, drug trafficking and consumption, and bilingual education. The Obama administration knew from the start that it could not ignore these issues; the media focus on Mexico's troubles underlined their high salience for the U.S. public.

Second, Latin America matters economically to the United States as a prime source of energy and other key resources and as a major market for U.S. goods and services. The United States obtains nearly half of its energy imports from the countries of the Western Hemisphere, and more than half of these come from Latin American and Caribbean suppliers. There is great potential for expanded energy production in the Americas, from both renewable and nonrenewable sources. The value of the goods and services the United States exported to Latin America in 2008 was $273 billion—20 percent of all U.S. exports, four times the value of U.S. exports to China, and about equal to U.S. exports to the European Community. U.S. firms still have a competitive advantage in Latin American markets, arising from proximity and familiarity plus demographic and cultural ties. Building upon this advantage in a region of expanding middle-class consumption is more pressing at a time of economic stress at home.

Third, Latin American nations are increasingly seen in Washington as critical for confronting such transnational issues as energy security, climate change, crime, narcotics trafficking, and public health. The new administration recognizes that these challenges cannot be managed effectively without close and sustained cooperation from several countries of the Americas—bilaterally, regionally, and in global forums.

Fourth, Latin Americans share important core values with North Americans, especially the commitment to human rights, including free political expression, effective democratic governance, and the rule of law. The broad normative commitment throughout Latin America to democratic governance and the rule of law is noteworthy, in spite of uneven practice. The Western Hemisphere remains a largely congenial neighborhood for the United States and its values in an international environment that is often hostile.

The Legacy

When Obama took office, in January 2009, administration officials understood that despite Latin America's growing day-to-day significance for the United States, U.S. policies toward the region in recent years have often been ineffective and sometimes even counterproductive. The administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush emphasized showy Western Hemisphere summits to induce and demonstrate high-level governmental attention to Latin America, but these meetings typically produced little beyond photo opportunities, rhetoric, and an occasional new program or process of consultation. Both administrations continued to talk about a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) long after that goal became unachievable. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, Washington came to view Latin America mainly through an international terrorism and security lens, and in these terms the region was a relatively low priority. Washington wasn't focusing on the issues Latin Americans themselves considered most important: poverty, education, income distribution, and citizen security.

Many Latin Americans resented Washington's perceived inattentiveness and felt that Washington was still following something of a cold war script. They rejected significant U.S. policies during the Bush years, including the Washington Consensus economic paradigm and especially the invasion of Iraq. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela took advantage of this sentiment by stepping up his flamboyant anti-U.S. rhetoric; he also sought favor in the region by boosting subsidized petroleum sales and other economic assistance to Central American and Caribbean nations; making a timely purchase of Argentine government bonds; cooperating closely with Cuba to furnish medical and other social services in many countries; and making bold promises to finance energy infrastructure projects in South America.

Many Latin American and Caribbean countries, meanwhile, have been strengthening subregional integration, in part through formal institutions, but even more through trade and investment, Latin America—based multinational corporations, and professional and business networks. Many South American countries engage actively in various regional and world forums. Venezuela established the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, or ALBA), with Bolivia, Ecuador, and eight Central American and Caribbean nations. Brazil has taken a leading role in creating the Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, or UNASUR) and the South American Defense Council. It is not yet clear how important these organizations will turn out to be in practice, but they clearly reflect a regional preference for intra—Latin American rather than Pan-American approaches.

Several countries—especially Brazil, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Mexico, and Cuba—have been diversifying their international relationships beyond the Western Hemisphere, building ties with countries of the European Union, members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and particularly with China, India, Russia, and Iran. China has displaced the United States as the main export market for Brazil and Chile, and is expected to become Peru's main market in 2010. Brazil has developed a strategic alliance with India and South Africa, strengthened ties with the other so-called BRIC countries (BRIC stands for Brazil, Russia, India, and China), played a leading role in the G-20, the G-8, the Doha trade negotiations, and the Copenhagen talks on climate change, and offered itself as an intermediary in the Middle East and with Iran.

As the international activity and self-confidence of Latin American nations have grown, support for pan-American approaches to problem solving has waned. The Organization of American States (OAS) has often been ineffectual, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter has not produced many meaningful results. The Inter-American Development Bank has weakened in recent years, as liquidity in private international capital markets has increased, and as the Andean Development Corporation and the Brazilian National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) have gained importance. As extra-hemispheric actors have become more active and visible in Latin America, the influence of the U.S. government has been perceptibly declining. This was the state of inter-American relations that Barack Obama inherited.

Taking on U.S.-Latin American Relations

With its decisive electoral victory and evident mandate for change, the Obama administration took up Latin America policy as part of its overall efforts to "reset" U.S. foreign policy. Key advisers posited that the severe international economic crisis might make inter-American approaches more attractive once again in much of Latin America. They believed that clear signals of a strong U.S. interest in regional ties could therefore yield dividends. This initial premise undergirded the new administration's first steps in the Americas.

The administration sought to gain the confidence of the U.S. public, of Latin Americans, and of the rest of the international community through its resolve and ability to reverse the deterioration of the U.S. economy. How well it succeeds in this aim will be highly relevant in Latin America, especially to those countries in the northern tier (Mexico and the Caribbean and Central American nations) that are especially dependent on U.S. investment, remittances, tourism, and trade.

Instead of reverting to soaring rhetoric about building a partnership reaching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, the new administration emphasized that it would prefer to work with Latin American and Caribbean governments on a few issues that could be dealt with soon, if only partially, such as bolstering financial institutions, restoring credit and investment flows, and tackling the challenges of energy, the environment, and citizen security. The administration aimed to rebuild U.S. credibility without making promises it couldn't keep and creating unfulfillable expectations, by helping confront the underlying issues that have created space for Chávez and other radical populist movements.

Although it is a commonplace that Latin American countries always have been diverse, there has been a bipartisan tendency in Washington since 1990 to believe that convergence was occurring within the region toward democratic governance, market-oriented economics, and policies of macroeconomic balance. The U.S. policy community came to think of Latin American countries as mostly proceeding at different rates along the same path, with Chile blazing the trail. These convergent trends have been important (albeit sometimes exaggerated), but the Obama team recognizes that key differences still persist among the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, and that some of these differences are growing. The most important differences lie primarily along five dimensions:

1. The level of demographic and economic interdependence with the United States

2. The degree and nature of openness to international economic competition

3. The strength of such key aspects of effective democratic governance as checks and balances, accountability, and the rule of law

4. The relative capacity of the state and of civil and political institutions beyond the state, such as political parties, the media, religious organizations, trade unions, and other nongovernmental entities

5. The extent to which the countries face the challenge of incorporating traditionally excluded populations, including more than 30 million marginalized, disadvantaged, and increasingly politically mobilized indigenous people, as well as Afro-Latin Americans and migrant workers.

Key U.S. officials understand that Latin American countries are moving on different trajectories and that their important structural differences need to be taken into account in U.S. policy. They recognize, therefore, that hemisphere-wide summits and broad regional initiatives are less likely to be effective than efforts that bring together smaller groups of variable composition, with comparable or complementary concerns.

Changing Washington's Mind-Sets

Within its first hundred days, the Obama administration set out to reshape five important mind-sets regarding Latin America policy.


Excerpted from Shifting the Balance Copyright © 2011 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Mauricio Cardenas vii

1 The Obama Administration and the Americas Abraham F. Lowenthal 1

2 Mexico and the United States: The Search for a Strategic Vision Carlos Heredia Andrés Rozental 29

3 Obama and Brazil João Augusto de Castro Neves Matias Spektor 43

4 The United States and Colombia: Recalibrating the Relationship Michael Shifter 55

5 The Chávez Challenge for Obama: An Inconvenient Marriage or Frosty Separation Jennifer McCoy 69

6 U.S.-Bolivian Relations: Behind the Impasse George Gray Molina 86

7 Obama's Cuba Policy: The End of the "New Beginning" Daniel P. Erikson 100

8 The Honduran Crisis and the Obama Administration Kevin Casas-Zamora 114

9 Haiti: Life beyond Survival Juan Gabriel Valdés 132

10 The Democracy Agenda in the Americas: The Case for Multilateral Action Theodore J. Piccone 145

11 Obama and the Americas: Old Hopes, New Risks Laurence Whitehead 165

Contributors 183

Index 185

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