Why Latin America is Disappointed with Barack Obama

Our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, works on straightening out U.S. policy toward the region. We're trying to understand how and why the Obama administration has gotten off track in its relationship with the hemisphere. Our Cuba policy associate, Collin Laverty, has written the following essay on where things stand.

When Barack Obama was elected president, the people of Latin America, as with citizens across the globe, immediately sensed an opportunity for improved relations with the United States, less hostility and war, more engagement and peace, and ultimately, improved conditions in the region and the world. Although Obama was elected to represent the interests of the U.S., and not those of the Western Hemisphere, the air was filled with expectations, hopes and aspirations about a new chapter in relations between Washington and a region whose history is marred by U.S. interference, covert operations, and support for dictators.

The Summit of the Americas in April of 2009 provided Obama with an early opportunity to make clear his goals for a new policy. Obama awed the regions' leaders in attendance when he announced the U.S. would seek an "equal partnership," one without senior and junior partners, and launched a new chapter of "engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values." He even shook hands with Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez and spoke publicly about the thousands of Cuban doctors serving in the region.

Just prior to the summit, President Obama ended restrictions on Cuban Americans' ability to travel and send remittances to Cuba. In June, the U.S. conceded to demands by the region for Cuba's readmission to the Organization of American States, ending a 47-year suspension from the organization. Soon after, Cuba and the U.S. announced the restoration of bilateral migration talks canceled in 2003. Obama's early Latin America policy consisted of cautious engagement with Cuba, reducing rhetoric toward adversaries, and supporting Mexico's fight against drug trafficking. Latin America's leaders, aware of Obama's ambitious domestic and global agenda, waited patiently for concrete signals of the new partnership he announced at the summit.

Unfortunately, Obama's "change you can believe in" soon began to look like "more of the same." On June 28th, Honduras' democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped at gunpoint and exiled to Costa Rica. President Obama and the State Department originally spoke out against the coup and called for Zelaya's restoration. However, the coup regime quickly hired powerful lobbyists and PR firms to lobby Congress and the executive and to influence mainstream media coverage, arguing the removal of Zelaya was constitutional. Republican Members of Congress applauded the coup, labeling it a victory against Chavez, and used brass-knuckled political tactics, such as stopping confirmation votes on Obama's Latin America nominees, to wield influence over the policy. The administration soon began to backtrack, refusing to officially label what happened in Honduras a coup, and remained silent about human rights violations. The rest of the region, still fresh with memories of coups and military-installed regimes, forcefully opposed the coup and refused to recognize the results of the November 2009 elections in Honduras for a new president. Yet, the U.S. quickly recognized the election results.

Also in June, reports began to surface about a secret agreement between the United States and Colombia to allow U.S. access to seven military bases in Colombia. News of the deal broke not through diplomatic outreach, but from a Colombian newspaper report. Countries throughout South America, including Brazil and Chile, immediately called on the U.S. and Colombia to produce a text of the agreement, which they refused. Despite objections and demands for more transparency, the deal was signed in late October.

As Brazilian President Lula da Silva has expressed many times, U.S. policy toward Cuba has become the litmus test for U.S. relations with Latin America. Despite initial movement, the Obama administration has returned to the same policy of conditionality - demanding improvements in human rights and democracy in exchange for the loosening of US policy - that has prevented engagement in the past. The executive order allowing Cuban Americans to travel freely to Cuba failed to include authorization for academic, religious and other "purposeful travel." The Obama Administration has not responded to Cuba's request to include counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and hurricane preparedness and response on the agenda for future talks. Finally, Obama has continued a USAID program focused on regime change, which is counterproductive, antagonistic, and puts the integrity and safety of those involved, on and off the island, at risk.

The Obama administration's refusal to develop and implement a new Cuba policy - one based on U.S. national interests with a goal of fully normalizing relations - exemplifies continuity in the way the U.S. views the region, and vice-versa. A quick 180 degree turn on Cuba may be the only way for Obama to win back some goodwill with our neighbors and create the partnership he hoped to establish. After all, it was U.S. military expansionism - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the reactivation of the Navy's Fourth Fleet to patrol the Caribbean - and support for the coup in Venezuela that upended President George W. Bush in Latin America. Obama despite his early promise is heading in the same direction.

- Collin Laverty