Ahead of the president’s trip to the Summit of the Americas this weekend, Gallup reports that Latin America is losing faith in President Obama. Specifically, the Gallup shows that only 24 percent of respondents in Latin American countries now believe Obama will strengthen ties between Latin America and the U.S.—in 2009, by contrast, that number was 43 percent.
“Gallup studies suggest that people in many Latin American countries do not believe Obama has strengthened the mutually beneficial relationships he pledged to pursue at the 2009 Summit of the Americas,” the report reads. “Obama will need to convince a highly skeptical audience that the U.S. is serious about its key commitments to Latin America.”
Nevertheless, the Obama administration continues to tout a “new chapter of engagement” between the United States and Latin America. Just yesterday, White House deputy national security Adviser Ben Rhodes—in a conference call with reporters—claimed that “Over the course of the last three years, President Obama has significantly bolstered the image of the United States in the region.” According to Rhodes, “U.S. leadership in survey after survey is far more welcomed and respected throughout the Americas.”
The administration may consider international politics a popularity contest, but that is deeply mistaken.
Indeed, President Obama’s new era of “engagement” with the region has yielded few—if any—tangible results. The administration has failed to defend democracy and the rule of law, failed to standby regional allies and friends, and failed to put forward concrete proposals to tackle the region’s most difficult security challenges.
The administration’s only success—passage of free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama—were hardly that. Both deals were signed under the Bush administration and were ready for congressional approval on Obama’s first day in office, but the White House—at the behest of union allies—stalled for two and a half years. The administration’s delay deprived U.S. corporations of important business opportunities and greatly damaged America’s reputation as a free market leader.
President Bush, on the other hand, amid wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was able to spearhead major regional initiatives while in office. As Jaime Daremblum has notes, “Bush had warm and/or productive personal relationships with several Latin American leaders, including Lula da Silva of Brazil, Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, Francisco Flores and Antonio Saca of El Salvador, and Alejandro Toledo of Peru.”
This weekend, President Obama has the opportunity to show he is finally willing to lead on issues in the western hemisphere. He could do so by proposing new investment and trade initiatives, recommitting the United States to Latin America’s security, and by finally speaking on behalf of the region’s beleaguered democratic movements.
Patrick Christy is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.