As we approached the first anniversary of President Obama's inauguration, all eyes were set on health care reform and its ultimate fate in the Congress. In foreign affairs, the war in Afghanistan held center stage. Less attention had been paid to his policy toward Latin America. With a global financial crisis and two wars going on, there was no reason to think the Western Hemisphere would be a priority for the White House. Yet, the overwhelming feeling about U.S. policy towards its Southern neighbours in this year is not so much one of lack of attention, as of missed opportunity. During the first half of 2009, despite many other demands on his agenda, Mr Obama managed to get quite a bit done in the region. A visit to Mexico with President Felipe Calderón, a successful Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain (where Mr Obama underscored he was there to listen rather than to pontificate), and the hosting of Presidents Lula of Brazil, Bachelet of Chile and Uribe of Colombia at the White House, are evidence of that. Much the same can be said about the lifting of the travel and remittances limitations on Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba, as well as that of the 1962 Organisation of American States (OAS) resolution that suspended Cuba's membership. Perhaps the high point of this "Latin offensive" was reached with the condemnation of the 28 June coup in Honduras. For a change, Washington sided with the democrats rather than with the generals, who evicted President Manuel ("Mel") Zelaya from his home at gunpoint, put him in a plane and sent him abroad. In the following weeks, and hand in hand with regional bodies like the OAS, which voted unanimously to suspend Honduras's membership, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Honduras, stopped a number of aid programmes, cancelled the U.S. visas of prominent Honduran officials (including that of strongman Roberto Micheletti) and otherwise indicated it would not abide by the first military coup in the region in twenty years. The high expectations generated in Latin America and the Caribbean by Mr Obama's election (which even led to the government of Antigua to rename its highest mountain, as Mount Obama) seemed to have been vindicated. A principled defence of the democratic cause in the Americas, anchored in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, seemed to have gained the upper hand in Washington's corridors of power, so often dominated by other, less elevated concerns. Yet, much to the chagrin of the overwhelming majority of Latin Americans, this initial stance quickly unravelled, allowing the policy of the past to raise its ugly head. By putting a hold on two key U.S. State Department appointments -- that of the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, and that of the U.S. ambassador to Brazil-designate, Thomas Shannon, Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) threw a monkey wrench into all this. In an unprecedented case of "parallel diplomacy", Senator DeMint flew to Tegucigalpa on his own, brushing off offers of assistance from the U.S. embassy there, met with the head of the de facto government, Mr Roberto Micheletti, and told him to stand firm and refuse Washington's entreaties to allow President Zelaya to return to office. Thus emboldened, Mr Micheletti quickly realised he had Washington's number, and that it was just a matter of running the clock towards the 29 November elections, after which he would be home safe. The one outstanding problem was U.S. recognition of these elections. To take care of that task, Mr Shannon was dispatched to Honduras to broker a deal between the de facto government and the forces supporting Mr Zelaya. Esconced in the Brazilian Embassy, the latter and his supporters made the mistake of trusting this was a bona fides negotiation, and signed off on a deal. This made the restitution of Mr Zelaya to the presidency contingent upon a vote of the Honduras Parliament, on the not unreasonable assumption that having internationally recognised elections was a powerful incentive. Yet, the deal turned out to be a Faustian pact between the Democratic administration and the Republican opposition. Back in Washington, Mr Shannon quickly stated that Washington would recognise the 29 November elections no matter what happened with Mr Zelaya, thus ending whatever leverage the United States might have had over Mr Micheletti and the de facto government. From there on, the comedy turned into farce. The Honduras Parliament didn't even meet to vote on Mr Zelaya's restitution before the 29 November elections. When it did so, in early December, the vote started with a strident Power Point presentation on Mr Zelaya's alleged misdeeds, ending with a predictable vote against restoring him to office. Back in Washington, the Republicans lifted the hold on Mr Valenzuela, who was quickly sworn in at State, and on Mr Shannon. Yet, in a remarkable turn of fate, the next day another Republican Senator, George Le Mieux of Florida, put another hold on Mr Shannon and his appointment as ambassador to Brazil. This left him twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, despite having kept his promise to deliver Mr Zelaya's head on a silver platter to the Republican opposition. Assistant Secretary Valenzuela lamely asked the newly elected Honduran president to stick to the San Jose-Tevgucigalpa agreements (which contemplated a government of national unity), a request which was brushed off as so much gobbledygook. At this point the government won't even allow Mr Zelaya to leave the country, unless he signs a document giving up on all claims to his former office. Instead of reaching out to the other side, all pretences at compromise have been abandoned. The de facto government is simply rubbing it in, boasting on how, through the K-Street lobbyists (U$ 600,000 were paid to them, including Lanny Davis, a former Clinton lawyer, for their services) and the Republican Senators, they managed to humiliate the Obama administration, the OAS and most Latin American governments, blocking the reinstatement of Mr Zelaya and thus the undoing of the effects of the coup. Multilateralism is much more than just another tool in the foreign policy toolbox. It is an expression of a willingness to work with others in the community of nations. It is a signal that one believes in collective action to promote global public good, and that states are able to see beyond a narrow Hobbesian perspective. One of President Bush's big mistakes was his extreme unilateralism, which led him to waste the enormous goodwill the United States earned as a result of the 9/11 tragedy. Iraq, Kyoto, Guantanamo and the policy followed towards the International Criminal Court all reflect this approach. Part of the attractiveness of Mr Obama's candidacy, a man who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, was his commitment to multilateralism. Progress has been made. Steps towards closing Guantanamo, the banning of torture and measures designed to slow down global warming are all examples of it. For the first time, a U.S. president chairs the United Nations Security Council. Mr Obama's dream to eradicate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth points in the same direction. Where his commitment to multilateralism has failed, however, has been in the Americas. By ignoring the unanimous resolution of the OAS that condemned the military coup in Honduras, by ending up supporting the de facto government there and by recognising the illegitimate 29 November elections held under a cloud, Mr Obama has disposed of any illusions he might embody a significant change in U.S. policy towards Latin America. In outsourcing that policy and delegating it, effectively, to the Republican party, the message is crystal clear: Washington cares little about what happens South of the Rio Grande, and is willing to let that policy be handled by the Republican senators from the Carolinas to Florida. It is thus surprising that the visit of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil raised eyebrows in Washington. In a speech, Secretary of State Clinton even warned Latin American countries not to deal with Iran, as consequences would follow. Washington is eager for Latin American nations to join the efforts of some members of the international community to isolate Tehran. Suddenly the Obama administration discovers it needs emerging powers like Brazil in its multilateral efforts in global fora, and Mr Obama writes President Lula endearing letters. Yet, it is perfectly willing to abdicate on its Latin American policy and to capitulate to whatever one or two Republican senators demand in the region. The notion that this initial outcome of the Honduras crisis is a victory of realism over principles is sadly myopic. It is nothing of the sort. It is simply the triumph of expediency over consistency. This is not the way to rebuild inter-American relations, in a bad state of disrepair after a difficult decade. Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. His latest book, with Andrew F. Coooper, 'Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization" is published by United Nations University Press.
Obama and Latin America
The Financial Express (also appeared in The Santiago Times)