Obama's Latin American Policy: Talking Like It's 1999

When it comes to Latin America, the Obama administration's change in tone from the early days of the last administration has been tremendously important. The emphasis on multilateralism has helped to salve long-standing wounds. The emphasis on broader social goals and the willingness to listen has echoed the growing demand to be listened to south of the border. And President Barack Obama's State of the Union shout out for free trade with Panama and Colombia has demonstrated that this administration will not jettison the best initiatives of President George W. Bush in the name of partisanship. All this is very welcome.

But still there's been a troubling sense of anachronism in this administration's rhetoric toward Latin America. Part of this reflects the understandable tendency to define things in regional generalities; but doing so tends to boil them down to retrograde platitudes. It obscures policymakers' sophisticated understanding of differences in the region--and the changes that have occurred in the last 10 years.

If the first 5 years of the Bush administration seemed like a replay of the 1980s, with the Manichean obsession with our enemies, unabashed support for specific candidates and a loss of sense of scale--with an inordinate amount of attention devoted to Cuba, Nicaragua and El Salvador--today it's beginning to feel like we're partying like it's 1999. We're running out of retro.

This perception doesn't, of course, reflect all the other initiatives that are at work. But at the very least, what's put out for public consumption--whether in public declarations or in diplomatic forums--sounds like old speak. It tends to underemphasize the power shifts that have occurred in the hemisphere, the variation in terms of institutional development, the opportunities that exist, or the role of the private sector in shaping agendas and relations.

Here's how to change it:

Remember Brazil: Rhetorically, the U.S. appears stuck in a paternal relationship with Brazil. It shows when the U.S. talks about how the region's emerging power clashes with U.S. interests. To acknowledge Brazil's ambition and power is not to cede it the moral high ground or agree with it--whether it's on Iran or solutions to regional problems like Honduras. But using megaphone diplomacy to express our displeasure with Brazil is not a policy we often exercise with Western Europe, and Brazil rightly bristles at being upbraided publicly. (Let me be clear: this is not to say that I agree with Brazil's policies, but public lectures aren't working.)

The Days of the Feel-Good FTAA Are Over: The U.S. marched out of the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami practically arm in arm with the rest of the region in agreement over the fundamental principles of a free-trade agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and democracy. In those days we could talk about the need for democratic institutions, respect for human rights and receive a near unanimous chorus of support from governments in the region. At the time they did all agree. Problem is, some countries have advanced; others have not. And neither side any longer wants to hear a lecture from the U.S. on democratic institutions, human rights (even under Obama) or the power of the market.

The region has become much more differentiated. Whether it's Brazil or Chile who see themselves as success stories, or Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador who feel they're on their own path, the 1990s rhetoric of the need to strengthen democracy is tired, offensive and seems pitched to the weakest of those in the hemisphere--a group no one wants to belong to. To correct this, what is necessary are two parallel discourses: one that acknowledges the advances and successes large and small across the hemisphere and another that specifically--and carefully--discusses the challenges, large and small.

U.S. Development Days Are Done: Talking in development terms when we talk about Latin America is not only passe, it rings hollow. This is not the fault of the administration; it's also true of the many groups that work on Latin America that always offer their opinions on what the U.S. should do in the region. These recommendations always hinge on a call to increase development aid to reduce poverty. The reality is that U.S. bilateral assistance to the region is small and unlikely to grow. To give a sense, in 2006 U.S. bilateral assistance to the entire region totaled $1.6 billion; in the same year, private investment totaled $26.8 billion. Much of that U.S. bilateral assistance went to the poorest, smallest countries--as it should. But in the meantime, the bigger players in the region both in terms of economic growth and a recipient of private-sector attention are not beneficiaries of U.S.-development assistance--nor do they want or need it. These two groups of countries have diverged, while U.S. development assistance is increasingly less relevant to the region in terms of amount and direction. In this sense, development rhetoric is not just pitched to a narrow segment of the region, it also risks sounding lecturing and offensive.

From Paternalism to Responsibility: To this point above, our rhetoric toward the region needs to focus on our collective responsibility to ensure that investment and free trade bring prosperity to all. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, the mantra should be "Ask not what the U.S. do for you, but what you can for yourselves." We know what countries must do to attract private investment. Now the question is what countries must do to ensure that private investment and free trade expand access to domestic and global markets for their people, especially for poor. This includes the U.S.

Part of this involves the U.S. retooling its development program away from the feel-good, small-scale projects and congressionally mandated issues to deal head on with preparing countries for free trade and markets. A central part of this must include working with the thousands of progressive businesses to match private-sector social investment with U.S. development dollars.

The same should be done with governments in the region large and small. Ultimately, bilateral assistance isn't about the U.S. giving a gift; it's about Latin American governments accepting their own responsibility for progress and the U.S promise to help them get there. A quick look at the countries that will pull out of the economic and financial crisis of 2009 (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico) demonstrates the rewards of fiscal, macroeconomic and social responsibility. That isn't development assistance today.

Cuba--Let's Move On: Sadly on Cuba we're not even back to 1999. President Obama's April 2009 announcement on telecoms liberalization for Cuba failed to provide the latitude to allow U.S. companies to provide the necessary infrastructure to realize his goals. Things like the equipment necessary for establishing connectivity are still prohibited. And after so much fanfare the administration has moved on. Meanwhile, officially, the administration has not returned U.S.-Cuba policy to the educational-cultural exchanges of the Clinton administration.

But there's also the problem of the USAID contractor Alan Gross that the Cuban government arrested in early December. His arrest appears to have completely flummoxed the administration. We've entered into a familiar, dead-end trope. Those who oppose the USAID program are implying U.S. guilt and the need to re-think our relations. Those who support the USAID program are faulting the Cuban government and calling for a freezing of U.S. relations with Cuba. Truth is: the two are not mutually exclusive.

Is it too wacky an idea to accept that it's the Cuban government's fault for arresting the poor man distributing laptops under an overblown program and still push ahead for diplomatic relations with the Cuban government--all the while continuing to raise concerns about human rights? Of course it isn't. But in this case the Obama administration seems stuck in the hoary divisions of left and right.

How can we move beyond the halcyon years of the 1990s?

First, disaggregate the region. Stop talking exclusively to the recipients of U.S. development assistance or at least using that language. There is a huge amount of variety in terms of institutionalization, market strength and integration into the global economy; when we talk about the region we need to understand those differences. Of course the administration knows this, but the rhetoric is getting lost in the gross translation of regional policy.

Second, recognize that U.S. bilateral assistance is, at best, marginal to our relations in the hemisphere and, at worst, an obstacle to relations. Fact is, most countries don't care. That doesn't mean that this is a moment of discussion among market equals. Rather, it means two things: a) avoid using the rhetoric that accompanies U.S. assistance when we cut the ribbon on a new project, which often sounds lecturing; b) build relations with business groups, which have become the real drivers of investment and have developed their own set of regional priorities.

Third, shake up the Cuba debate. Take both sides: talk human rights and open up to the island. And don't wait for reciprocal action on the other side of the Florida straits. The Cuban government wants us to hesitate. Don't. We should do it because we stand for principle: human rights and openness.

This isn't hard. In fact, with the exception of Cuba, it's already happening. The trick is to say it.