Clinton's Travels to Latin America

Barely a year into the Obama Administration, we've already heard the usual grousing from Latin America analysts and others about the "lack of attention" given to Latin America, and expressions of deep disappointment from those who believed that the new U.S. president would simply abandon fundamental U.S. interests in the region once he came to office. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's travel to Latin America this week will help address the first point in their minds, but not the second, because the United States continues to be a superpower with commensurate interests to pursue.

Nonetheless, for those with a more objective view, the Secretary's travel, beginning with a trip to Montevideo for the inauguration of Uruguay's new president on March 1, provides an excellent opportunity to continue building a relationship with the region begun at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. It follows recent travel by the Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg to Colombia and Peru, as well as Presidential and Secretarial level travel to Canada, Mexico, and to the Caribbean for the Summit, touching virtually every base. That's a pretty solid record of travel in the first 13 months of any administration. By contrast, President Bush's promising hemispheric efforts on immigration, Mexico, and regional democracy promotion were waylaid by 9/11, just eight months into his first term. President Bill Clinton's first Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, didn't travel to the region until his final year in office, 1996. The President himself didn't go until 1997, although he certainly was not disinterested in or disengaged from the hemisphere, as shown by his hosting of the first Summit, the passage of NAFTA, and the Mexico rescue package.

Substantively, it is extraordinary that a secretary of state would go to the inauguration of any President of Uruguay, much less this president. The democratically elected Jose Mujica is a former leftist guerrilla, and previous U.S. administrations might have been tempted to send a much lower-ranking individual to represent the United States. The presence of the Secretary of State is profound, because it tangibly signals that, consistent with prevailing rhetoric, the United States will pursue warm relations with leaders who express an interest in strong relations with us and also abide by democratic norms. Finally, and appropriately, we've moved beyond a self-imposed ideological straight jacket in hemispheric relations, and are willing to have a healthy dialogue with anyone who wants one with us.

The secretary also plans to stop in Chile, just hit by a major earthquake, and will certainly pledge U.S. assistance even as the country transitions from the outgoing government of Michelle Bachelet to the government of president-elect Sebastian Piñera. She'll also stop in Costa Rica and Guatemala, for the purpose of promoting a joint approach toward social inclusion, economic development, and personal security, the latter of which is deteriorating rapidly in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America.

The heaviest lifting will be in Brazil. Outgoing President Lula is riding high: an economy that never slipped into recession is nonetheless rebounding strongly, massive oil and gas finds in the deep water off the coast could turn Brazil into a global energy superpower, and upcoming World Cup and summer Olympic competitions have boosted the president's popularity into the stratosphere. With a massive wind in its sails, Brazil is now expanding its reach, playing a larger regional role and indeed global role. Managing Brazil's rise is something that U.S. policy makers have not yet begun to grapple with in a serious manner, but the Secretary's visit will nonetheless offer an important opportunity to discuss the issues that are complicating relations. The trick will be to find common ground and a broad agenda for cooperation, such as support for reconstruction in Haiti, without either ignoring strategic U.S. interests or, alternatively, pursuing them in a manner that would cause undue friction. It's a tightrope that must be walked.

And what are some of these difficult issues? For one, the promotion of regional democracy and human rights. It was unfortunate, for example, that Brazil's president was in Cuba this week, at the same time as the death of human rights hunger striker Orlanda Zapata was announced, and decided to say little publicly about it. Or that Brazil worked at cross-purposes with the United States in resolving the democratic crisis in Honduras. Or that there has been radio silence out of Brasilia on the damning, 300-page report just issued on Venezuela by the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Or that Brazil's president hosted Iran's leader in November for an official visit, and has promised a return visit to Tehran in May. It's also unfortunate that the significance of a U.S. base-access agreement with Colombia for counter-narcotics purposes has unnecessarily been blown out of all proportion.

No doubt Brazil is a sovereign nation and can pursue its regional and global interests as it sees fit. At the same time, nations that aspire to leadership must be cognizant of the responsibility that comes with leadership. The question that is increasingly being asked is whether the United States and Brazil are actually partners, or potential competitors. Perhaps in reality it's some of both. These are some of the issues that the U.S. Secretary of State will grapple with in Brasilia.

The strategic equation in the Americas is changing and a lot is riding on Secretary Clinton's visit. Managing the U.S. relationship with Brazil, a rising global power with big ambitions, is one of the most important strategic issues in the hemisphere.

As a result, surely this first visit will not also be the last.