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Obama, Bush and US policy in Latin America

Commentary, 7 November 2008
The position Barack Obama will inherit in Latin America is stronger than is often claimed. Making real progress in the region, however, will prove difficult for the President-elect.

The position Barack Obama will inherit in Latin America is stronger than is often claimed. Making real progress in the region, however, will prove difficult for the President-elect.

By Mark Joyce, Americas Fellow, RUSI

As with most other parts of the world, the mood music surrounding US policy in Latin America is much improved following Barack Obama’s victory on 4 November. Most governments in the region have issued warm congratulations, including that of Venezuela, with which Washington has had openly hostile relations in recent years. Even that bête noire of successive US administrations, the Cuban former president and revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, has expressed himself satisfied with the outcome, although stopping short of an outright endorsement.

The common theme running through much of the commentary of US policy in this region is that Washington’s influence has diminished under a Bush administration pre-occupied with the Middle East and Asia. This analysis is flawed on at least two levels. First, with the exception of its near abroad of Mexico, Central America and parts of the Caribbean, the US has rarely made Latin America a major focus of its foreign policy. South of Panama, Washington has always been just one of many external players, which in the nineteenth century included the UK and Germany and now features China and Russia. The Bush administration’s relatively weak focus on the region is broadly consistent with most of US history.

Second, despite the so-called pink-tide that swept in Latin America during the early and mid-2000s, with a succession of elections introducing left-of-centre governments widely perceived as hostile both to the US and the so-called Washington consensus, the regional picture now looks reasonably positive from Washington’s point of view. The US has solid allies in the centre-right governments of Mexico and Colombia, while the centre-left administrations in Brazil and Chile have proved constructive bilateral partners as well as mature participants in regional and international fora.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chávez has been chastened by a succession of domestic political setbacks over the last year and has somewhat toned down his inflammatory anti-US rhetoric. With oil prices having fallen from their recent peaks, he is likely to become even more circumspect in his regional diplomacy over the next few months, to the benefit of the United States. Although Bush can claim little of the credit for this regional picture, it is inaccurate to portray the region as a failure for US foreign policy.

There are three issues on which US policy has undoubtedly failed, although in each case the failure must be attributed to successive administrations rather than simply Bush. The first is Cuba, where the interminable trade embargo continues to perpetuate Cubans’ misery while damaging US influence both in Cuba and elsewhere in the region. The second is trade, where the failure to open US markets more fully to Latin American exports provides fuel for the region’s populist leaders, who can justifiably claim that free trade is largely a one-way process where Washington is concerned.

Thirdly, on immigration, there has been a marked lack of progress in granting legal status to millions of Mexicans and other Latinos who remain in a state of limbo despite being crucial to the effective functioning of the economies of most southern US states. President Bush has pushed hard in the final months of his presidency to achieve progress on this issue, but has been effectively stonewalled in Congress by Democrats and Republicans.

Of these three issues, only the first is likely to undergo a significant shift as a result of Obama’s arrival in the White House. Obama was significantly more willing than his rival to countenance the possibility of talks with the Communist government in Havana. However, this is consistent with the broad thrust of congressional and public opinion on Cuba in recent months, with opinion polls among Cuban exiles indicating a greater willingness to explore détente than at any point since the Cuban revolution. It should be noted that Obama took Florida, the stronghold of the Cuban exile community, with relative comfort despite being perceived as soft on Cuba compared to his rival. This suggests that by talking to Havana he is in fact following a shift in attitudes rather than setting a new agenda.

On trade policy, things seem more likely to go backwards than forwards, with Obama having already opposed ratification of a long-stalled US-Colombia free trade agreement. A Democrat-dominated (and therefore trade union influenced) Congress appears likely to drive trade policy down a more protectionist course, with negative consequences for Latin American countries. On immigration, a Democrat-dominated Congress is likely at best to perpetuate the current stasis. The key point is that it is Congress rather than the President that will determine the outcome of the debate.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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