December 21, 2009
by Jaime Daremblum
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.
When Honduran authorities did not restore Zelaya as president, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on the Central American country and announced that U.S. recognition of the November 29 Honduran elections was contingent on Zelaya's reinstatement as president. The administration maintained that Zelaya's removal from office was a coup against democracy. But in fact, as a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded, "the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system." The release of these findings made it difficult for the Obama administration to continue labeling the interim Honduran government a "coup" regime.
Stage three of Obama's Latin America policy commenced in late October, when U.S. officials helped finalize a deal that established a provisional "unity" government and allowed the Honduran congress to determine Zelaya's fate. Regardless of whether Honduran legislators chose to reinstall Zelaya, the United States agreed to accept the legitimacy of the November 29 elections. By shifting its stance on Honduras, the Obama administration signaled that it was embracing a more pragmatic approach to the crisis, and perhaps to the entire region. However belated the decision, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserve credit for changing course.
The Honduran elections saw the conservative candidate, Porfirio Lobo, emerge victorious. The United States and several other Latin American countries--including Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, and Peru--have recognized his election as legitimate. But many other governments--including the pro-Chávez regimes and, more significantly, the governments of Brazil and Chile--have not. Shortly after the elections, Honduran legislators emphatically rejected the idea of returning Zelaya to the presidency to serve until Lobo's inauguration in late January. The vote was 111 to 14.
Upon hearing news of the anti-Zelaya decision, Obama's newly appointed assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, told reporters, "We're disappointed by this decision since the United States had hoped that Congress would have approved his return." Unless Valenzuela was being disingenuous, his comment was inexplicable: After everything that has transpired, how could Zelaya be allowed to return to the presidency? Furthermore, prior to the 111-14 vote, Zelaya had said that he would refuse to be reinstated by the Honduran congress, so as not to validate the "coup."
Valenzuela's confirmation as senior U.S. official for the Western Hemisphere marked the beginning of stage four of Obama's Latin America policy. His confirmation had been delayed for months by Republican senator Jim DeMint and some of his GOP colleagues who were incensed over Obama's handling of the Honduran crisis. Valenzuela was finally confirmed by the Senate on November 5. At this point, it is unclear whether his elevation (he replaced veteran diplomat Tom Shannon, a Bush appointee) will have an appreciable impact on U.S. policy. Valenzuela's comment on the anti-Zelaya vote was not encouraging.
President Obama deserves credit for changing his position on Honduras, for aiding Mexico's war on the drug cartels, and for expanding military cooperation with Colombia. But he has not succeeded in getting the Democratic congressional majority to approve pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. Moreover, his inattention to the region and assorted policy missteps have weakened U.S. influence and created a dangerous leadership vacuum that is being filled by Chávez and his allies, including Iran (which is collaborating with Venezuela on the development of nuclear technology) and Russia (which in recent years has signed bilateral arms deals with Venezuela worth more than $5 billion). If Obama really does want to construct "a fresh partnership of the Americas," he shouldn't waste any more time.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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