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Latin America Waits for Obama to Deliver

Jaime Daremblum

In a recent interview with PBS host Charlie Rose, Sudanese-born businessman Mohamed Ibrahim said that Africans had great hopes for Barack Obama, but are still waiting for him to announce a new set of U.S. policies toward their continent.

Latin Americans feel the same way.

All of Obama’s four immediate predecessors spearheaded at least one major initiative in the Western Hemisphere. Ronald Reagan established the Kissinger Commission on Central America and launched the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). George H.W. Bush started the “Enterprise for the Americas Initiative” and spearheaded the NAFTA talks. Bill Clinton completed NAFTA, created the Summit of the Americas, supported enhanced trade preferences for CBI members, and began negotiations for a “Free Trade Area of the Americas.” George W. Bush signed CAFTA with Central America and the Dominican Republic), plus single free-trade pacts with Chile, Peru, Colombia and Panama; he also introduced the anti-drug Mérida Initiative.

Thus far, Obama has treated Latin America as an afterthought. He has not presented a coherent agenda for the region, nor has he convinced his own party to approve the Colombia and Panama trade deals, which still must be ratified by Congress. Latin American officials are getting impatient, and their expectations of the Obama administration have dropped significantly.

Frank O. Mora, the top Pentagon official for Latin America, has defended Obama’s policy of “targeted engagement” as a prudent approach to hemispheric affairs. Speaking at the University of Miami on April 29, Mora cited U.S. relief efforts following the Haitian earthquake as “the most obvious example” of Obama’s leadership in the region. But those activities were merely a response to a grave humanitarian crisis; they did not reflect a long-term strategic vision. Mora also pointed to the new Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), which is designed mainly to combat drug trafficking. The CBSI is certainly a worthwhile program, but it has a relatively tiny budget that critics have called inadequate.

President Obama needs to be bolder. His neglect of Latin America has created a leadership vacuum. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia have expanded their hemispheric influence through close relations with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, and China is flooding the region with investment. According to a Latin Business Chronicle analysis, China’s total trade with Latin America increased by 256 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Yet congressional Democrats apparently can’t be bothered to endorse free-trade agreements with Colombia or Panama. That’s simply embarrassing, and it has given Latin American politicians ample reason to doubt Obama’s commitment to the region. The president wants to “double our exports over the next five years” (as he declared in his 2010 State of the Union Address). So why not demand that Democratic lawmakers approve the Colombia and Panama deals? Could it be that Obama is more worried about angering U.S. labor unions than he is about angering the conservative, pro-American governments in Bogotá and Panama City?

Nobody ever said that promoting free trade was easy. NAFTA and CAFTA only passed because Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively, were willing to exert real pressure on members of their own parties. As Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes reported after the July 2005 House vote on CAFTA: “Bush worked harder for CAFTA – and stayed up later – than he had for the vote in 2003 on his Medicare prescription drug benefit. The White House, indeed Bush’s entire administration, was mobilized for this vote. For days, Bush met with House members individually and in small groups. He traveled to Capitol Hill to address the House Republican conference on the morning of the vote, speaking passionately for nearly 45 minutes with no notes, then answering a dozen questions.”

If Obama were truly dedicated to trade liberalization, he would be similarly aggressive in twisting the arms of Democrats on Capitol Hill. But the president is simply not a passionate advocate of free trade. During his 2008 run for the White House, he opposed the Colombia and Panama accords and suggested it might be time to renegotiate NAFTA. Obama has wisely ditched his irresponsible campaign rhetoric, but he has not made a serious push for trade expansion.

Nor has he displayed leadership on resolving hemispheric political disputes. Obama has effectively outsourced that job to the Organization of American States (OAS), a dysfunctional institution that has been weakened by structural problems and poor management. Both before and after the June 2009 removal of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, the OAS proved itself incapable of settling a democratic crisis caused by Zelaya’s attempted power grab. In fact, OAS chief José Miguel Insulza inflamed tensions prior to Zelaya’s ouster by sending an observational team to Honduras to monitor the government’s proposed “referendum,” which had already been declared illegal. This emboldened Zelaya and led to his arrest by the Honduran military.

Given its many deficiencies, the OAS is clearly no substitute for true U.S. leadership in Latin America. More than 15 months into his presidency, Obama has not provided that leadership. Economically, the U.S. risks losing ground to China. In terms of national security, the U.S. has been dithering while Russia fuels a dangerous arms buildup in Venezuela and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism (Iran) rapidly enlarges its hemispheric footprint. Latin American democrats have been waiting patiently for Obama to tackle these challenges. It’s long past time for the president to deliver.

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