December 18, 2008

Obama's plans for Latin America

ISN Security Watch's Sam Logan talks with leading experts to find out how Obama's policy toward Latin America will change relations with the US' southern neighbors.

By Sam Logan for ISN Security Watch




When Barack Obama takes office in 2009, Latin America may see a renewed effort from the White House and State Department to reconnect with the region.

Among the numerous concerns for the incoming administration, Latin America will remain a mid- to low-level agenda item, but the Obama team will most certainly engage with Cuba, Mexico and Brazil, significantly changing policy in some cases, according to a number of experts.

The quickest way to display a new approach to Latin America will be through improving relations with Cuba, many argue. There is broad consensus that sees a quick shift on US policy for the country, one that may go as far as removing restrictions on travel for tourism.

Many also agree that Obama will make a decidedly strong effort to engage with Brazil, a country many in the new administration likely see as the best partner for the US in the region.

A focused approach on Brazil may leave less room for other partners from the past, like Colombia, where a reduced amount of foreign aid and the possible renegotiation of a free trade agreement are two very real possibilities that do not favor the Uribe administration.

Another question hovers over Hugo Chavez and a chance to improve relations with Venezuela, despite the South American leader's heavily negative rhetoric. Obama, however, is not likely to seek to engage Chavez, but rather to keep a distance and allow Chavez's own troubles at home and with the energy markets carry him out of office.

While a certain broad consensus seems to be in place on some issues pertaining to Cuba and the idea that Washington will engage Brazil, few are confident of the specifics. What Washington will do with the drug trade and how the US will support Mexico in its fight against organized crime also remain considerations, but the specifics are vague.

"From the center-right to the left, there's a pretty clear consensus. There are significant differences over how the next administration should handle trade issues, but there is clear agreement across the board: one, Latin America needs to be a higher priority; two, there needs to be a new tone and approach; and, three, one of the easy first steps […] would be to change the Cuba policy," Geoff Thale, program director with the Washington Office on Latin America, told ISN Security Watch.

On Cuba

"Obama has a real opportunity to redirect US relations with [Cuba]," Shannon O'Neil, Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, told ISN Security Watch.

"[He] won Florida - supported by the majority of Hispanics in that state, though he lost the Cuban-American vote. Since Cuban-Americans were not decisive in his victory, Obama now doesn't owe them anything. In addition, polls show that younger Cuban-Americans were more likely to vote Democratic, suggesting a longer-term shift away from the core support for the current US-Cuba policy."

Obama has said that he would relax Cuban-American family travel to Cuba as well as restrictions on remittances. Another easy policy shift could involve reinstating the biannual migration talks.

In early 1995, Cuba and the US sealed a migration agreement. Cuba would try to prevent rafters from leaving the country, and the US would allow up to 20,000 visas for Cubans. Both sides agreed to meet every six months to discuss the ongoing nature of the migration agreement.

The Bush administration suspended these talks in 2003.

"They were seen as an opportunity to talk about a wide range of issues, not just migration," Thale said. He added that it would take very little for the Obama administration to reinstate the biannual meetings.

O'Neil also pointed out that "a change on Cuba would also make much of Chavez's anti-American rhetoric ring less true across the region, limiting its effectiveness and perhaps leading to a different bilateral dynamic down the road."

On Venezuela

"Obama is going to be very cool and distant towards Chavez," Michael Shifter, vice-president for policy with the Inter-American Dialogue, told ISN Security Watch.

"He's going to avoid both the aggressiveness during various moments of the Bush years, and he's going to avoid seeking a real rapprochement with Chavez."

Shifter suggested that ambassadors would be returned, and that there would be some sort of lower level consultation and cooperation on drugs and other issues. But he doubts if there will be a dramatic opening up with Chavez.

"Chavez is already thinking very worriedly about the price of oil, feeling a little cornered," Javier Corrales, associate professor of Political Science at Amherst College, told ISN Security Watch.

"He is going to probably try to provoke the United States. The naval exercises with the Russians is just an open declaration. Chavez wants the hard-line response from the United States, and he's pressing all the right buttons," Corrales added.

Yet, it will be harder for Chavez to criticize Obama.

"Obama's personal profile and life story makes it much more difficult to dismiss him as a 'yankee imperialist,'" O'Neil said.

Shifter agrees, suggesting that Chavez will struggle to portray Obama as the enemy.

"Bush was such a great gift," he said.

The likely outcome between the US and Venezuela will be for Obama to allow Chavez to run his course. There are a number of domestic issues, from the economy to the perceived failure of many of Chavez's initiatives.

"[Chavez] needs to administer his revolution," Larry Burns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Relations, told ISN Security Watch in an interview earlier this year.

Now, the results of his lack of attention on Venezuela will be felt in the outcome of Chavez's current plans to hold a new referendum on limitless presidential terms, as well as the presidential elections.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has also stated his interest in running for a third term. He and Chavez couldn't be farther apart politically, but both seek to remain in power.

On Colombia

"If Uribe decides to run for a third term, all bets are off," Adam Isacson, program director with the Center for International Policy, told ISN Security Watch.

"Colombia is a big question," Shifter said. "It was an issue during the presidential campaign and there's a lot at stake for the United States. The US has a lot invested in Colombia, and it's been the most controversial situation."

Yet Colombia, the region's top ally during the Bush years, may diminish in stature and relevance under an Obama administration.

"Aid to Colombia is going to shrink, perhaps even economic aid, because there's no money, and the urgency is lower than it used to be," Isacson said.

Apart from the future of Plan Colombia, a free trade agreement with the US currently sits on the president's desk, waiting for Obama to make a decision.

"Obama will want to figure out a way to get it approved," Shifter said. "The financial crisis, on balance, will encourage the Obama administration to send a signal that it will continue to be committed to trade relationships and commercial ties. People will look at how he deals with the Colombia agreement as an indicator of that."

"Presumably [Obama] doesn't object to the [FTA] model and will not push for renegotiation, like he talked about in the primaries about NAFTA. His main objection has been the situation of labor unionists [in Colombia]," Isacson said.

But the political will is still not in place in the US Congress, with about half of the Senate democrats and the majority of democrats in the House of Representatives not in a place to vote for Colombia's FTA.

"Human rights, labor rights and environmental standards will receive much more attention under an Obama administration than they did during the eight years of the Bush presidency," Bruce Bagley, professor of International Studies at the School of International Studies at the University of Miami, told ISN Security Watch.

Bagley thinks that trade deals such as the FTA with Colombia will eventually pass through US Congress, but "will be approved but with much higher levels of US conditionality."

If he wants Obama to support the FTA, Uribe will have to push hard to shore up human rights concerns within the new administration, as well as show at least a "pretext for the flip-flop, and he can't do that until Colombia generates some numbers on impunity for labor killings - we've thrown this number of people in jail for these exemplary cases, for example," Isacson said, pointing out that both the reduction of aid vis-à-vis Plan Colombia and the possible rejection of Colombia's FTA with the US are two policies that will not go Uribe's way.

"Colombia doesn't matter if policy is to put Colombia on the back burner and place more center of gravity on Brazil and other countries."

On Brazil

"Bush discovered that it was vital to get Brazil and the United States to grow closer, and he started going in that direction," Corrales said. "Obama should consolidate that gain. There should be some institutional mechanism where it is officially acknowledged that Brazil is going to be collaborating with the US in insuring hemispheric security and prosperity."

The most logical connection between the US and Brazil has been via a discussion over energy, specifically the ethanol trade. But trade issues have been problematic in the past. Brazilian orange juice exporters have been found guilty of dumping their products on the US, and Brazil has taken issue at the World Trade Organization with US cotton subsidies.

Yet "the [US-Brazil] relationship has matured," Paulo Soutero, director of the Brazil Institute Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said in an interview with Vision Americas.

In the realm of security, Brazil is certainly willing to take a leadership role, as evidenced thought the UNASUR initiative. However, it remains unclear if Brazil is willing to take on a leadership role whereby it is willing to do the US' dirty policing work in the region in exchange for the US disengagement with various countries - especially the Andean nations that continue to struggle with the ongoing violence and geopolitical challenges caused by the drug trade.

On Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador

The Obama administration has a decision to make about Bolivia.

"The issue is whether the incoming Obama administration chooses to lump [Bolivian President Evo Morales] with Hugo Chavez and make him a Latin American bad boy, or sees in the country's first indigenous president something historic, like Obama," Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, told ISN Security Watch.

"President Morales' [recent] visit to Washington turned out to be a leap of faith that Morales took to establish some sort of rapport, and show interest, and to highlight that there are some very real concerns "[…]," Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, told ISN Security Watch.

She also indicated that while Morales was not able to meet with Obama, he did make some headway with members of Congress, interested in hearing him out. Some, like Republican Senator Richard Lugar, made their own leap of faith in support of Morales. Yet Ledebur remains somewhat skeptical.

"If [the new administration] is not able to seek out the information they need to see how badly things have gone for a very long time, then there will not be change," she said.

"The first test for Obama will be how he deals with Bush's move to dump Bolivia out of the Andean Trade Preference Act," Shultz said, adding, "Obama could, and should, side with the bipartisan position in Congress that extends Bolivia's participation until mid-2009 and allows for a new round of US-Bolivia dialogue on its actions to fight coca destined for the drug market."

In Peru, few see much of a change in policy and posture from the Bush to the Obama administration, yet Ecuador could be another interesting case where the US may find opportunity to bring President Rafael Correa closer to Washington and father from Caracas.

"Correa is an example of where I think there will be a greater opportunity [for Obama] because there will be a growing rift in Ecuador with Chavez," Shifter said.

"Correa will look for opportunities to work with the Obama administration. He's got some real issues in terms of the new constitution and the role of the state in the economy, and the way it's dealt with foreign investment. And those issues will not disappear."

Shifter also mentioned that Correa will also face elections in April, arguing that while he was likely to win, the Ecuadorian economy would swiftly become a serious issue.

Across the region

"If the US can take some regional views of Latin America but then look at what's going on in each country as distinctive political entities, and the challenges taking place in those countries, both political and economic, they'll have a much more productive time," Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, told ISN Security Watch.

There are limitations, however. Many agree it is difficult to see how the incoming administration can significantly increase time spent on policy toward Latin America when so many other, more important issues, remain on the horizon.

"The White House as a whole is not going to pay much attention to Latin America, which means that the State Department will continue to be the leading force in US diplomacy to the region," Corrales argued.

It's not yet certain who will replace Tom Shannon as the State Department's top diplomat in the region, but there is a sense that from the State Department, the Obama administration will support a base level of continuity, adding higher levels of accountability for human rights and, perhaps, a less confrontational approach.

"Obama will change the tone and style of US diplomacy towards Latin America," Bagley said. "Indeed, President-elect Obama has already begun to alter perceptions of the United States throughout the region. Obama will be more consultative and multilateral in his approach - a welcome change - but there will be frictions nonetheless."


Sam Logan is an investigative journalist who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999. He is a senior writer for ISN Security Watch and has a book on organized crime and immigration forthcoming from Hyperion in spring 2009.

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