The Magazine

A Bad Neighbor Policy?

The Obama administration loses ground in Latin America.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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Given the challenges that President Obama faces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, China, and elsewhere, the fact that he has thus far neglected Latin America is hardly surprising or scandalous. Obama has committed several unforced errors in the Americas, however, most notably in Honduras, and his relatively weak performance has raised concerns about declining U.S. influence.

Obama's Latin America policy has evolved through four stages. During stage one, Obama practiced what might be called Sally Field diplomacy ("You like me!"), marveling over his own popularity in the region while trying to make nice with both friendly and adversarial governments. The administration engaged Venezuela and stayed quiet as Hugo Chávez continued demolishing its democratic institutions. In a May 24 editorial, the Washington Post said of Obama's Venezuela policy, "This may be the first time that the United States has watched the systematic destruction of a Latin American democracy in silence."

The president also pursued olive-branch diplomacy with the Cuban dictatorship. Prior to April's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, the White House announced a loosening of U.S. sanctions against Cuba--and got nothing substantive in return. Addressing the summit, Obama declared that his administration wanted "a new beginning with Cuba." He did not attempt to refute Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega's vicious and hysterical attacks on U.S. foreign policy, which had consumed nearly an hour of the summit's opening ceremony. Instead, Obama stressed the need to move beyond "past disagreements" and "stale debates" in order "to build a fresh partnership of the Americas," adding, "I'm grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old" (a reference to the Bay of Pigs affair).

If Obama believed that his personal charm and assurances of good will would be sufficient to sway Chávez and the Castro brothers, he was mistaken. Chávez remains as belligerent and dangerous as ever--consolidating an authoritarian regime at home and fomenting instability abroad. As for Cuba, a November 2009 Human Rights Watch report notes that the "machinery" of government repression on the Communist island remains "firmly in place and fully active."

In the opening months of his administration, Obama missed a golden opportunity. He could have--and should have--used his enormous popularity to expand U.S. leadership in the hemisphere. Instead, the president made clear that he would defer to the Organization of American States (OAS) on regional disputes. Unfortunately, the OAS has been weakened by the poor stewardship of Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, the corrupting influence of Hugo Chávez, and structural deficiencies that lead to operational paralysis. Insulza, a Chilean socialist, has pursued a strongly ideological agenda driven by left-wing politics. Meanwhile, Chávez has used economic assistance (namely, oil subsidies) to gain significant influence over the votes of more than half the OAS member countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and most Caribbean nations. As a result, the OAS, once the premier democratic forum in the Western Hemisphere, has lost much of its moral credibility and grown increasingly irrelevant.

The imprudence of Obama's deference to the OAS became more apparent during stage two of his Latin America policy, which began after the June 28 arrest and exile of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, a Chávez crony and aspiring autocrat who had committed constitutional violations as part of a failed power grab. The Obama administration immediately joined Insulza and other regional officials in denouncing Zelaya's removal as an illegal military coup. As the rhetoric escalated, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias stepped in to mediate between Zelaya and the interim Honduran government. These negotiations failed to produce a resolution, mainly because of Zelaya's intransigence and efforts to stoke a violent uprising.