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iversidad Externado de Colombia Colombia Randall,

Stephen J.

Change or Continuity in US-Latin American P...


OASIS ISSN: 1657-7558 [email protected] Universidad Externado de Colombia Colombia


Stephen J.

Change or Continuity in US-Latin American Policy: the Obama Record OASIS,



Available in: http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa

How to cite Complete issue More information about this article Journal's homepage in redalyc.org

Scientific Information System Network of Scientific Journals from Latin America,

Spain and Portugal Non-profit academic project,

developed under the open access initiative

Change or Continuity in US-Latin American Policy: the Obama Record Stephen J.

Randall Latin American Research Centre University of Calgary [email protected]

There has been little praise and considerable criticism of the Latin American policies of the first presidential term and the early stages of the second administration of Barack Obama.

It is understandable that his administration has had major distractions domestically and internationally with the fallout from the financial crisis,

political wrangling over health care reform,

sable rattling from North Korea,

the need to continue to build a stable relationship with China,

and winding down wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since the mid-term Congressional elections in 2010,

the President has also faced congressional deadlock over virtually every administration initiative,

from the confirmation of nominees to executive positions to immigration reform.

Given those challenges and what had to be priorities,

it was inevitable that Latin American policies would suffer to some degree.

Condolences and understanding aside,

the gap between President Obama’s lofty rhetoric and actual policy accomplishments is significant and growing.

Latin American Perspectives (2011),

recently characterized his administration’s

policies as “dangerous complacencies.” Other commentators have suggested there is more continuity than change from the George Bush policies which he so vigorously criticized in 2008 (2011,


This paper reviews the regional policies,

of the administration over the past 5 years with particular focus on Honduras,

Colombia and Mexico,

three of the regional countries which have posed the most significant challenges.

On Cuban policy during the campaign,

Obama was explicit in calling for change at least in terms of lifting travel restrictions and controls on remittances for Cuban Americans with family on the island.

Speaking before the Cuban American Foundation in Miami in May 2008 he pledged to immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances.

He also indicated that he was prepared,

He made no reference to the embargo.

On broader Latin American policy he was critical of the U.S.-Colombian trade agreement,

which both he and Hillary Clinton criticized in the Democratic Party primary campaign (Strassel,


Recibido: junio 19 de 2013 / Aceptado: octubre 8 de 2013

C h a n g e o r C o n t i n u i t y i n U S

Once he had secured the nomination and moved into the presidential campaign against Republican John McCain,

Obama made few references to Latin American issues

they simply did not resonate with the electorate in the fall of 2008.

The bbc’s Latin American analyst James Painter predicted that there would be a change in tone but little substantive change in actual policy with an Obama administration1.

The first administration began with a mixture of the same optimistic and positive rhetorical flourishes which had characterized the 2008 presidential election campaign.

There had been a great deal of popular support for the Obama candidacy in Latin America,

partly because he was African-American and partly because of his democratic,

liberating and inspirational message of change.

Brazilian President Inácio Lula da Silva stressed the significance of Obama’s race (Erikson,


Only a few months after taking office,

speaking before the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad,

Obama spoke of a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations and pledged to respect sovereignty and diversity in the region.

His commitment was unequivocal: “I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past,

and that trust has to be earned over time.

While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere,

we have at times been disengaged,

and at times we sought to dictate our terms.

But I pledge to you that we seek an equal

There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations

there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.

So I’m here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration.” President Obama identified a number of specific areas in which he sought improvement: stimulating economic growth

supporting an expansion of Inter-American Development Bank lending capacity

combating inequality and creating prosperity from the bottom up

addressing violence and insecurity

stopping the illegal flow of arms by giving priority to ratification of the un Protocol on Illicit Traffic in Firearms and the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms

establishing an Energy and Climate Partnership for the Americas

and “a new beginning with Cuba”2.

The record since 2009 has been disappointing when measured against the promises.

Once in office there was a minor initiative to ease travel restrictions to Cuba,

but by the time of the 6th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in 2012,

President Obama indicated that there would be no change in U.S.-Cuban policy in spite of the almost unanimous support for a reintegration of Cuba into the Inter-American system by countries in the hemisphere,

Canada being the other opposition.

The isolated nature of the U.S.


Fifth Summit of the Americas.

Recuperado de http://www.trinidadandtobagonews.com/5summit/obama170409.

OA S I S ,

N o 1 8

The year that Obama took office the General Assembly voted 1872 condemning the embargo policy,

with only Israel joining the United States in the vote.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the curious statement in 2010 that it was her personal opinion that the Castros did not want a normalization of relations because it would expose their policies for the failures that they have been3.

Certainly there was no hint from her of a shift in U.S.-Cuba policy.

Nor was there any sign of significant change on Cuban policy in the first several months of the second term.

Former Senator John Kerry,

Clinton’s successor as Secretary of State,

Cuba was still on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In February 2013 the New York based Council on the Americas and the Washington based Cuba Study Group both called on the administration to lift the embargo.

The administration did not respond.

In May 2013,

overture to reduce tensions with Cuba,

a US court allowed René Gonzalez to return to Cuba.

Gonzalez was one of the Cuban Five who had been in a U.S.

prison until 2011 serving time for engaging in espionage (Hayden,


Any significant shift in policy toward Cuba is unlikely in the balance of Obama’s presidency.

There is little appetite for such change in Congress or in the Cuban-American community with the exception of the liberalization of travel and remittance restrictions.

Any Congressional shift is also unlikely given

the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry’s successor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is Robert Menendez of New Jersey,

who has consistently opposed any normalization of relations.

Where Kerry has been able to shift policy directions is on relations with Venezuela,

with which the United States has had a troubled relationship for a decade,

largely because of the intense anti-American policies pursued by the late president Hugo Chavez.

In early June 2013 Kerry met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jose Jaua,

the first cabinet level meeting between the two countries in several years,

and Kerry’s first Latin American trip since taking office.

There was some expression of hope that there would be a normalization of relations and an exchange of ambassadors in the near future4.

With respect to other promises the President made in Trinidad,

as of 2013 the United States had not ratified the un Protocol on Illicit Traffic in Arms nor the Inter-American Convention,

in spite of the heightened attention to gun control following the devastating shooting of school children in Newtown,

Connecticut in late 2012.

The energy initiative had produced some results.

By 2012,

had invested approximately $150 million in support for a variety of projects in the region,

from electrification projects to training programs,

the Caribbean Renewable Energy Strategy,

and a number of national energy research centers.

On narcotics,

Reported by Reuters (April 9,




Relations may improve.


a m é r i c'a l'at i n a pi Rev Oasis 18_final.indb 9

C h a n g e o r C o n t i n u i t y i n U S

critics argue that the administration has simply maintained and extended the initiatives of the Clinton and Bush administrations,

from Plan Colombia to the Iniciativa Mérida in Mexico and the conclusion of Bush administration negotiated free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama in spite of opposition from his own party over perceived human rights issues.

although it was not solely a Latin American issue,

did Obama follow through on his very vocal commitment to close the Guantánamo detention center.

The relative neglect of Latin America,

with a few important exceptions,

is indicative of a much broader and more fundamental shift in the relationship between the United States and the region.

The United States simply does not have the power or relevance it once had.

The decline of U.S.

influence in the region is reflected not only in the success which the now late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had in extending his Bolivarian vision and oil fueled influence into the Caribbean,

Central America and the Andean region,

but perhaps more importantly in the emergence of Latin American-led regional organizations in which neither the United States nor Canada is represented (Congressional Research Service,


Such organizations go beyond such regional trading blocs as mercosur.

The first of the more recent organizations is unasur,

the Union of South American Nations,

which was established in 2008 at a summit in Brazil.

It is essentially an integration of the Mercosur countries with those of the Andean Pact and is modeled on the European Union.

It includes 12 countries and a Latin American parliament

A second is celac,

the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States,

established in Caracas in 2011.

Its objective is to advance regional integration,

and the organization includes 33 countries.

Such initiatives are indicative of the growing sense of economic,

political and diplomatic power in Latin America,

most striking in the case of Brazil,

whose inclusion among the bric (Brazil,



China) countries is an indication of its capacity to play a more important role on the world stage.

The efforts of Central and South American countries in the past decade to strengthen their economic relationships in particular with China,

Europe and even Iran have reflected this broader tendency to distance themselves from the United States and to build more complex economies and political linkages.

As two analysts suggested,

“a more self-confident and autonomous majority in Latin America has sometimes sought a policy shift with regard to highly sensitive topics,

immigration and Cuba.” (Whitehead & Nolte,


Those initiatives were not limited to Chavez’s Venezuela,

allies as Colombia and Mexico.

On one level,

this effort on the part of Latin American countries to distance themselves from the United States is ironic since the economic importance of the United States to the region remains strong even if it has declined since 2000.

In 2000,

some 61% of Latin American exports went to the United States.

By 2010,

The change in U.S.

exports to the region has shown a similar decline in that period from 55% to 30.5%.


the United States is still the source for 20% of foreign direct inves-

OA S I S ,

N o 1 8

tment in the region and an estimated 90% of remittances (Whitehead & Nolte,


A brief examination of Obama administration policies toward three countries serves to illustrate a number of the basic features of the administration’s approach to the region,

Honduras because of the 2009 constitutional crisis,

Mexico because of the extent to which it poses challenges which are in part domestic and in part foreign policies,

which because of Plan Colombia has had a special importance to the United States since the Clinton administration.


The first major crisis and challenge in Latin America which the Obama administration faced came in Honduras.

This was an important litmus test for the relatively new administration.

What position it would assume when confronted by a military-backed coup would have important impact on the public perception of the extent to which the new administration was in fact departing from past failed policies.

In June 2009 the Honduran Congress and military removed from office leftist President Manuel Zelaya,

contending that he was violating the constitution in his efforts to lift restrictions on presidential terms.

Honduran congressman Roberto Micheletti was named interim president.

The Obama administration had been working for some weeks prior to the coup in an effort to resolve differences between Zelaya and his opponents.

There was admittedly a great deal of confusion at the time over the constitutionality of the process by which he was removed,


the Congress and the military,

and that confusion was reflected in the response of the oas and some member states.


the Bolivarian countries and unasur,

condemned the removal as a violation of the Democratic Charter.

In late June President Obama stated: “We do not want to go back to a dark past,” and added,

“we always want to stand with democracy” (Malkin,


The administration suspended $30 million in aid to Honduras,

although this was only a small percentage of the total level of U.S.

The administration did not,

break diplomatic relations and recall its Ambassador.

Critics contended that administration officials were aware of the pending coup and condoned it.

They also argued that the administration fell back into the anachronistic bipolar Cold War mentality of seeing the “left” in Latin America as a security threat to U.S.

a threat embodied in the anti-Americanism of Hugo Chavez (Latin American Perspectives,





On July 5 the oas,

acting on the basis of Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,

Months of political and diplomatic wrangling ensued,

along with mass public demonstrations in Honduras in support of Zelaya,

during which time ousted President Zelaya was given diplomatic asylum in the Brazilian embassy.

During that interlude the administration worked with Oscar Arias of Costa Rica in a failed effort to mediate a resolution which would have seen Zelaya returned to office.

That and other efforts failed in the face of stiff resistance from the Honduran Congress and

a m é r i c'a l'at i n a pi Rev Oasis 18_final.indb 11

C h a n g e o r C o n t i n u i t y i n U S

Congressional Conservatives to any solution which would restore Zelaya to power.

Conservative Republicans in the Senate used the opportunity of the Honduran coup and the Brazilian opposition to block the confirmation of both the Obama nominee as ambassador to Brazil and the nominee as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs,

actions which the German Institute of Global and Area Studies labeled the “hijacking of Latin American policy” (Whitehead & Nolte,


Honduran authorities pressed on with their intention to hold new elections at the end of 2009.

officials continued to work unsuccessfully to have Honduran officials accept a power sharing government.

All efforts failed and the Obama administration took the easier and more pragmatic approach to a solution.

In November,

senior state department official Thomas Shannon indicated that the United States would recognize the results of the November 29 elections even if Zelaya was not returned to power.

The Obama administration ultimately accepted the legitimacy of the elections and recognized the new government of Porfirio Lobo,

in contrast to the response of most Latin American countries.

Brazilian presidential adviser Marco Aurélio García commented at the end of November: “We have a strong sense of disappointment” in the U.S.


Although on the surface the crisis ended with the election and the inauguration of President Porfirio Lobo,

the legacy of the coup and the perceived violations of human rights during the demonstrations which had followed the coup persisted.

The interim

government had suspended freedom of assembly and speech in the period leading up to the November election (Joyce,


In July 2011 the Honduran Truth Commission concluded that Zelaya had broken the law when he disregarded the ruling of the Supreme Court instructing him to cancel the June 2009 referendum.

At the same time,

the Commission determined that his removal from office was also unconstitutional and that the action should be considered a coup.


it ruled that the appointment of Micheletti as interim president was also unconstitutional.

The U.S.

response to the impeachment of President Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012 was even milder.

The Obama administration did not assess the Congressional impeachment,

for failing to maintain social harmony,

led by the conservative Colorado Party,

although there was some criticism for the haste with which the process was implemented.

By contrast,

Latin American condemnation of the removal of the reformist president who had pledged to address poverty and engage in land reform,



Uruguay and Chile withdrew their ambassadors.

unasur and Mercosur immediately suspended Paraguay.

The oas did not sanction Paraguay and the Obama administration followed the oas lead.

In April 2013 the oas sent official observers to monitor new elections which brought right wing Colorado Party candidate Horacio Cartes to power,

ending what little opportunity there had been for substantive reforms which might have challenged large landowners and agribusiness.

OA S I S ,

N o 1 8


If one considers that narcotics,

and immigration are among the three most important policy issues facing the United States in Latin America then Mexico is the country with which the Obama administration has most needed to “get policy right.” Few analysts would give the administration passing grades in its Mexico policy.

Immigration reform as of 2013 is still mired in the stew that has characterized Congressional politics.

There is no consensus on how to deal with the estimated eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Conservatives want even more security on the border with Mexico but are opposed to any of the arms control measures which might actually improve border security.

Narcotics policies,

in spite of rhetoric that recognizes that the war on drugs has been a failure,

is still based on a mano dura approach.

Obama has stated that he understands that American consumption of illegal narcotics is a major contributing factor.

He has also made clear that he understands that guns flow from the United States into Mexico to meet the demand of criminal organizations,

but those guns continue to flow five years after his election.

It is understood that the President cannot control Congress and that the nra continues to wield power over many elected representatives who might otherwise support gun control.

Indicative of that level of influence is the fact that the Bureau of Tobacco,

Alcohol and Firearms,

under nra and Congressional pressures,

stopped releasing data on the percentage of weapons seized in

Mexico that had been purchased in the United States (Vanderbush,


President Obama’s election coincided with the militarization of the conflict with the narcotics cartels during President Felipe Calderón’s administration.

He also inherited the Merida Initiative which allocated substantial U.S.

support to Mexican (as well as Central American) military and law enforcement as well as judicial officials to control narcotics production,

trafficking and organized crime.

In 2008,

Congress appropriated $400 million for Mexico and an additional $65 million for Central America.

In his first year in office President Obama signed another $300 million into law for the program.

By 2012,

congress had appropriated $1.6 billion under the program (U.S.

Department of State,


In 2009,

President Calderón sent 5,000 federal troops into Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.

The city,

and northern Chihuahua in general,

had been the site of sustained conflict among competing drug cartels.

The initiative yielded some limited success against the cartels but in the process thousands of civilians have also lost their lives.

Scholars have shown statistically,

that the militarization of the war against the cartels in Ciudad Juarez resulted in a significant increase in homicides against women (Méndez,


The election of pri candidate Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012 promised to bring a shift in Mexican policies,

a scaling down of military operations against the cartels,

more federal collaboration with state and municipal authorities,

more focus on the protection of human rights,

a m é r i c'a l'at i n a pi Rev Oasis 18_final.indb 13

C h a n g e o r C o n t i n u i t y i n U S

social and economic factors which give rise to criminal activity.

He has also worked to develop a more effective working relationship with the other leading political parties in Mexico in order to achieve reforms in such critical areas as energy,

where there have been signs that the oil industry will be more open to foreign investment,

as well as in education and communications.

As Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue noted in early May 2013 as President Obama met with his newly inaugurated Mexican counterpart,

Mexico’s image in the United States was not positive.

It was viewed as corrupt,

with a weak human rights record,

the source of most of the illegal immigration entering the United States,

as well as the cause of border state violence and narcotics trafficking into the country.

it is economically significant to the United States,

with some forecasts predicting that it will replace Canada as the largest trading partner of the United States in less than a decade.

From a Mexican perspective,

immigration reform in the United States is one of the most important objectives which the Obama administration could achieve,

since it has long been a source of anger among Mexicans.

Whether substantial reform will be attained remains to be seen.

U.S.-Mexico relations are so closely tied to the broader debate over immigration policy and drug trafficking that it is difficult to say what is specific to Mexico and what constitutes U.S.

Democrats in Congress have had little choice except to concede to harsher border controls toward Mexico in order to obtain Republican support for immigration reform,

remain opposed in principle to immigration reform if it amounts to an amnesty for undocumented immigrants,

recalling that the last time there was an amnesty the result was an increase in illegal migration across the border with Mexico.

Irreconcilables include,

Republican Senators Jeff Sessions,


Ted Cruz and John Cornyn (Shear,


The irony is that border security is tighter now than at any previous time.

Since 2005,

the number of border patrol agents in the U.S.

The air wing of Customs and Border Protection is well equipped with air surveillance capacity.

Technological surveillance has become highly sophisticated and effective,

and the entire operation has taken on a military command structure.

The Obama administration is caught between two very different visions of how to deal with Mexico.

The President in his overall approach to narcotics trafficking and in specific reference to Mexico has argued from his first year in office that there needs to be more emphasis on economic development and less emphasis on the military approach to dealing with drugs.

Obama has also sought to distance his administration to a considerable degree from the internal policies and especially the high levels of violence within Mexico.

He stressed in his May 2013 meetings with President Peña Nieto that Mexico needs to set its own course on its security challenges,

with the United States playing a purely supportive role.

That approach coincides with Peña Nieto’s desire to reduce U.S.

involvement in law enforcement on the Mexican side of the border,

in part to reduce the tensions and distrust

OA S I S ,

N o 1 8

that exist between Mexican and U.S.





The problems of organized crime,

narcotics and arms trafficking,

human rights violations and illegal migration are certain to remain persistent issues in the U.S.-Mexican bilateral relations for the foreseeable future.


The Obama administration overlapped with the last two years of the Presidency of Alvaro Uribe Vélez before the election of former Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos in 2010.

The Obama administration inherited the ongoing Plan Colombia,

when it was initiated by Presidents Clinton and Pastrana,

had allocated approximately $6 billion,

most of which was dedicated to assisting Colombia with military and national police training as well as with military and communication technology.


aid was strictly to be allocated to the effort to eradicate coca crops and counteract narcotics trafficking,

but after 9/11 and the designation of farc and the eln as terrorist organizations the assistance took on a counter-insurgency dimension as well.

The administration also inherited a free trade agreement that had been negotiated and signed during the George W.

Bush presidency but not ratified,

in large part because of opposition in Congress from Democrats critical of Colombia’s human rights record.

Controversial as his administration was,

Uribe’s presidency had witnessed a dramatic shift in the strength of the state in its decades’ long conflict with farc.

During the three years that Santos served as Minister of Defense,

state had established a police and/or military and civilian presence in all of the country’s municipalities,

many of which in the 1980s and 1990s had been largely abandoned to farc,

the eln or in some cases to paramilitaries.

As well,

the Colombian strategy of targeting farc leaders had born fruit,

with two of the major figures killed in military action and the third,

Mario Marulanda or Tiro Fijo,

the founder and leader of farc,

Santos had also presided over the Colombian-U.S.

joint operation “Operación Jaque”,

which liberated former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and another fourteen high